Talking about Genres – Welcome to my Genre

Writers, publishers and readers talk about genre a lot. It’s how bookshops decide where a book belongs. It’s used to draw up charts, award prizes and produce those “If you liked this book, you might also like…” messages on-line retailers send us.

But how do we define genres?

Pigeon Park Press asked a number of published authors to give a personal account of their chosen genre.

Grimdark

Who are you and why are you qualified to talk about grimdark?
I’m Anna Stephens and my debut novel, Godblind, is considered by many to be in the grimdark sub-genre of fantasy. Grimdark fantasy is often set in a dystopian world where there is a distinct lack of fun or hope. There is very often some sort of war being fought, whether by magic or by inserting metal into flesh with extreme prejudice, and the heroes – or rather, the protagonists as ‘hero’ can be a strong word for the types of people we encounter – are generally just doing their best to survive. They may have lost all faith in the cause for which they’re fighting.

Q:So, it’s just depressing and peopled with savages?
Not really. There’s no doubt that a grimdark universe will focus on some of the darker places people can go – both physically in acts of violence and mentally in their attitudes to the world in which they live. The societies and cultures are often very complex, with systems of government, trade and social systems, much like any other type of fantasy or, indeed, reality. What makes a fantasy grimdark is that these cultural benefits are often subsumed by the horrors of war or the proclivities of the main characters.

Q: Torture. You’re talking about torture. So grimdark is torture-porn for readers?
Not at all. While you’re likely to come across some scenes that make you wince, the emphasis is usually on the characters’ journeys, as it is in any novel. It’s just these characters don’t necessarily have a happy ending or anything much to look forward to. It’s an examination of humanity pushed to the brink; who we become and what we’re capable of when everything seems hopeless and bleak.

Q: So nothing good ever happens?
Oh no, lots of good things happen. In fact, a lot of grimdark is about clinging to the small moments of light and shreds of hope that leaven the darkness. The darker the night, the brighter the stars.

Q: Alright, that’s actually quite interesting. Which other authors beside you should I look out for?
George RR Martin, he of Game of Thrones fame, was one of the first authors to grimdark elements into his work (the Red Wedding, anyone?) so there’s him, Joe Abercrombie, Mark Lawrence, Deborah Wolf, Kameron Hurley, ML Spencer and CS Friedman, to name a few.

 

Folk Horror

Who are you and what is folk horror?
My name is James Brogden, and I write folk horror – at least, that’s what it’s being called now. It’s a peculiarly British subgenre which focuses on the dark side of traditional – usually rural – culture. Think devil-worship in old, thatched cottages; murderous scarecrows; nasty things scuttling in the hedgerows; the brooding presence of pagan elder gods.

Ooh! That Lovecraft bloke!
No.

What type of folk do you write about, then?
Not so much ‘folk’ as in people, more like ‘folklore’ – old stories, traditions, superstitions and domestic rituals passed down from generation to generation. Classic examples might be Arthur Machen’s ‘The Great God Pan’, the works of Dennis Wheatley, or David Pinner’s ‘Ritual’, filmed as ‘The Wicker Man’ (the original version, not the godawful remake). You can see its influences very strongly in ‘The League of Gentlemen’, and it’s also bound up in a certain nostalgia for 70’s film and television, a sense that ‘modern’ horror has become saturated with cheap jump-scares, torture porn, slasher remakes and endless hordes of bloody zombies. In a sense it’s generational – those of us who grew up as kids in the 70s addicted to Hammer horror are now writing the kinds of things we loved then.

Is it anything to do with folk music?
Yes and no. Folk tunes often touch on the same dark themes, and Morris dancing has some pretty weird history behind it, but if you’re asking should the story be read out loud in a nasal whine with a finger stuck in your ear, then no.

So no Ed Sheeran then?
No. No Sheeran, no Lovecraft, and no sodding zombies.

 

Comic Fantasy

Who are you and what is comic fantasy?
I’m Heide Goody. Comic fantasy? Well that would be fantasy that is funny. Or a funny book that contains fantastical elements. It can be set in an entirely fictional universe, or it might be set in the real world with some minor magical or supernatural adjustments (e.g. dogs can talk or mermaids are real).

So, it’s books you’re talking about, not comics?
It’s anywhere you might find fiction. The word comic just means that there is comedy in there.

Huh. Well that means you could have “comic anything”, surely? What’s special about comic fantasy?
It gained huge popularity because of Terry Pratchett, whose work dominates the genre. In the Discworld series, all of the stories are set in the same world, but he took different elements of the real world (universities, journalism, the coming of the railways) and showed us what they looked like in the Discworld. Writing in a fantasy world means that parody fits very naturally; people love the opportunity to laugh at familiar things presented through a fantasy lens. Other authors to look out for are Robert Rankin, Tom Holt and Christopher Moore. Because humour is so subjective, it can be a slippery label to apply, and the boundaries blur somewhat. Douglas Adams will sometimes be included, but much of his work is SF rather than fantasy. Neil Gaiman makes many lists, but that might be because of his association with Terry Pratchett.

 

Steampunk

Who are you and what is Steampunk?
I’m Jon Hartless and Steampunk is (usually) reimagining the nineteenth century with anachronistic technology.

You stick some cogs on it and call it Steampunk?
Not at all; for me, trying to be aware of how one change in the timeline could alter history is the key to presenting a believable world, after which I map that starting point onto the themes and issues I want to explore. However, given the sheer variety of people in Steampunk – musicians, writers, cosplayers, crafters, clothes designers etc – it is problematical (to say the least) to claim there is only one way or one approach which is valid.

It sounds like a very broad genre?
It is, and hence you find quite a lot of variation within. Steampunk can feature a world where airships dominate the skies or it could show humanity spreading across the entire solar system in steam-powered rockets.

It sounds as though Steampunk is a little too broad?
Not really; the genre thrives on diversity. It can be horror, fantasy, comedy, romance, erotica, and that is just in the literary side of it.

Ah, but isn’t Steampunk just “fascism for nice people”, in which the true nature of the 19th century – slavery, oppression, exploitation – is simply glossed over and sanitised?
It has come under fire for ignoring reality, but that is a criticism you can aim at almost any genre – and like just about every other genre out there, you can find many different approaches going on; light and frothy, thrilling and adventurous, dark and bleak etc. Besides, Steampunk is alternate reality, so criticising it for not being real is somewhat paradoxical. Reality is merely the starting point; it’s what you actually do with Steampunk that is important.

Who are the big names in Steampunk?
Alan Moore’s earlier League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a good start, though the most common names are probably Gail Carriger and Cherie Priest, with a dash of Robert Rankin for humour.

 

Historical Fantasy

Who are you and what is historical fantasy?
I’m Tiffani Angus, and historical fantasy is what it says on the box: fantasy set in a historical time and place. But pinning down a clear definition of the type that I work in can be difficult because of the many subgenres placed beneath the generic historical fantasy umbrella and fantasy’s use of secondary worlds that are eerily familiar.

So, it’s like Lord of the Rings?
No, not exactly. Even though LotR is in some ways based on historic times/places, with familiar elements, it’s set in an imaginary, or secondary, world. LotR and its most recent literary descendant Game of Thrones are High Fantasy; other subgenres of historical fantasy include Steampunk, Classical Fantasy, based on Greek and Roman mythology, and Celtic fantasy (such as stories about King Arthur). The historical fantasy I’m interested in closely overlaps with historical fiction that is based in our real world. It’s populated with real historical persons and can feature real historical events.

Oh, it’s alternative history?
Eh, yes but no. A lot of alternative history is based on the premise that thing X did or didn’t happen (such as the Allies winning WWII) and explores how the subsequent timeline would have changed. But then there are some novels, such as Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula, that are set in a specific time period and feature real people but with such strong fantasy elements that the history becomes alternative. In some cases, the fantastic element is time travel, which further complicates defining the subgenre. My historical fantasy isn’t so much interested in changing “big” history as in tweaking little bits of it, but the timeline remains.

Who writes this stuff?
A few authors who write a lot in this subgenre include Susanna Clarke (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and The Ladies of Grace Adieu) Tim Powers (On Stranger Tides), and Diana Gabaldon (Outlander series). Other authors who’ve written in this subgenre include Christopher Priest (The Prestige), Connie Willis (Doomsday Book), Catherynne Valente (Deathless), and Elizabeth Hand (Mortal Love)

 

Urban Fantasy

Who are you and what is Urban Fantasy?
I’m Theresa Derwin and Urban Fantasy is a sub genre of fantasy. It’s often associated with Charles De Lint as one of the earlier players, is a genre also centred in ‘place’. Set predominantly in an urban environment (cities such as London, New York, Chicago for the Chicagoland Vampires series by Chloe Neill or Shreveport for the Sookie Stackhouse series aka True Blood) this genre mingles a contemporary world with elements of fantasy.

Ah, so it’s Harry Potter?
No, it’s broader and often darker than that. For instance, in Seanan McGuire’s Incryptid series, Verity Price is an internationally ranked ballroom dancer who happens to have another – discreet job. Kicking arse with elegant spins and protecting the cryptids (or supernatural creatures) of Manhattan. These can range from the Aeslin mice who live in her closet and worship her family as deities, ogres, dragons, fae, werewolves or Sasquatch- and that’s just for starters.

So, it’s just modern stories with monsters in?
Well, the different directions it can take however is the ‘in or out’ game; supernaturals are either known to the world and are coming out, such as in the Charlaine Harris worlds, or they are a deeply hidden secret with only a select population ‘in the know’. Best examples of this are the SPI Files books by Lisa Shearin, or Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. Place is central to the tone of urban fantasy; as is adventure, quite often romance, and strong female leads.

No room for Harry Potter?
Despite preconceptions there’s plenty of room for the boys. Harry Dresden – the wizard in Butcher’s books, is kind of like an adult Harry Potter with attitude. Urban Fantasy male authors suffer the same prejudices experienced by female horror writers; their existence is either disregarded or not known of.

 

Literary Fiction

Who are you and what is literary fiction?
William Thirsk-Gaskill. Literary fiction is any fiction which is not genre, and not written entirely to make money.

So is The War of the Worlds not literary fiction, because it’s genre?
It is more complicated than that. If you believe TWOTW is actually about Martians, then it is science fiction, and hence not literary fiction. If you think, as I do, that it is an allegory for what was about to happen in World War One, and that the Martians are a metaphor for human agents from other countries, then it is, arguably, literary fiction. In this case, it is also one of the most prescient books of the modern era.

That’s vague. It sounds as if anything you think is good could be literary fiction. Say what it is, rather than what it is not.
I won’t bother to repeat the basic, Aristotelian rules of narrative. I would say that literary fiction examines characters in more minute detail than any other genre. I accept unreservedly that other genres draw out character, but if your narrative has first to construct, say, a penal colony on one of the moons of Saturn, then it will be more about the setting, and the technology which supports it, rather than the characters.

But a harsh environment like a moon of Saturn will test the characters to their limit.
Yes. But a suburban sitting room can also test characters to their limit. And if I am going to create a suburban situation which tests characters to their limit, that will test me as a writer.

The best contemporary literary fiction also uses as few words as possible – no whole paragraphs of description of what somebody is wearing, unless such description is vital to the narrative, as it is in American Psycho. It tells the reader what is happening, what the protagonist sees, hears, says, and does, but it delegates the task of working out why all this is happening to the reader. In that sense, literary fiction owes part of its living to increased access to education.

Who would you say are the main exponents of the genre?
I can only give a highly selective answer. Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, Anthony Burgess, Muriel Spark, and Toni Morrison. I could give you at least five others sets of five. Arguably the greatest influence on my own work is Dorothy L. Sayers, a crime writer, but my point is that her novels are not just about solving crime: they have character development and social commentary and can be appreciated for those things alone, if the reader prefers.

But most of those are dead, and Toni Morrison is getting on a bit. What about some contemporary names?
I have a collection of short fiction coming out later this year, from Stairwell Books. It is called Something I Need To Tell You. I’ll give you the name of a website that sells books from a collection of independent publishers, and you can look at them for yourself. www.inpressbooks.co.uk

 
Historical Horror Fiction

Who are you and what exactly is historical horror fiction?
Hi, my name is Dean M Drinkel; I’m a UK / France based award winning writer and director. Horror is where it all began for me but over the last couple of years ‘history’ has played a bigger part in my creative life (which is good as I double majored in American History / History at University – I wrote my thesis about the Salem Witches. I was convinced they were witches, the people who marked my work, weren’t.)

Can you tell us some more then about the historical aspect of your work?
Sure, about three or so years ago I was invited to contribute a story to an anthology (FEAR THE REAPER – Crystal Lake) and I wanted to write a story about a character I had used in a couple of tales set in Paris, in modern times; however, I thought it would be fun to write something about the past so set it in 19th Century, Vienna. I soon got the bug and I compiled / edited an anthology for Lycopolis Press about the Titanic and then for Alchemy Press in memoriam to World War One. In 2016 I moved to Cannes, France to co-write a historical feature film script (with the French writer, Romain Collier) about the son of Napoleon entitled “The Tragedy Of The Duke Of Reichstadt” which then won two screenplay awards at the Monaco International Film Festival and which should see production (as a tv series rather than a film) later this year. During that time I also wrote a (recent) historical based novella which formed part of the Exaggerated Press’ anthology DARKER BATTLEFIELDS.

Is there a market for this sort of thing?
In terms of our script yes – you want to see the cast we have attached, it is mind-blowing that everyone we approached said yes and there are some big European names there. History in literature always seem to sell, I mean look there is Ken Follett, Hilary Mantel, Amor Towles, Umberto Eco, Philippa Gregory and William Shakespeare to name but six. In terms of historical / horror you definitely see that a lot in the cinema and in terms of literature writers who have worked ‘history’ into their work can include Kim Newman, Lucius Shepard, Philip K. Dick, F.G. Cottam, Guy N. Smith and of course Christopher Fowler with his Bryant & May series of books.

Are you going to continue to write in the historical horror genre?
Yes, I am right now working on a new novella for our follow up to DARKER BATTLEFIELDS – we have all been tasked with writing WW1 stories which should see publication during the fall of 2018. From a script point of view, with the 200 years anniversary of Napoleon’s death coming up that seems too good an opportunity to miss, my co-writer and I were looking at a very unique and ‘modern’ way of telling Bonaparte’s story…so watch this space!

The Contributors

Anna Stephens is the author of the grimdark debut fantasy novel Godblind, first in the Godblind trilogy published by Harper Voyager in the UK and Commonwealth. It has also been published in North America and France, with forthcoming publications in Germany, Poland, Netherlands and the Czech Republic. Book 2 is out Summer 2018. An Open University Literature graduate and a second dan black belt in Shotokan Karate, Anna loves all things speculative, heavy metal music and the screams of her enemies.

James Brogden is a part-time Australian who grew up in Tasmania and now lives with his wife and two daughters in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, where he teaches English. His horror and fantasy stories have appeared in various periodicals and anthologies ranging from The Big Issue to the British Fantasy Society Award-winning Alchemy Press. He is the author of the novels Hekla’s Children, The Narrows, Tourmaline, The Realt and the short story collection Evocations. His new novel The Hollow Tree will be published by Titan in March 2018. Blogging occurs infrequently at jamesbrogden.blogspot.co.uk, and tweeting at @skippybe.

Heide Goody said her co-writer, Iain, could write this bio bit. She didn’t say it had to be true. Heide was born in Staffordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire in 1953 but not fully assembled until 2012 as part of the London Olympic Games closing ceremony. She is only four inches tall and worked as freelance security for woodland creatures. She became a writer after being hospitalised by some very vicious shrews. Iain and Heide have been writing together for 6 years. Iain writes the nouns. Heide puts the verbs in. Her favourite verbs appear in this book.

Jon Hartless was born in the 1970s and has spent much of his life in the Midlands and Worcestershire. His latest novel, Full Throttle, a steampunk motor racing adventure examining the gulf between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the dispossessed, appeared with Accent Press in August 2017.

Tiffani Angus is a Senior Lecturer and Course Leader of MA Creative Writing at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge. A graduate of Clarion, she has published short fiction in a variety of genres (historical fantasy, fantasy, SF, horror, and erotica). Her current research includes gardens in fantasy fiction and women in apocalyptic fiction. Find her at tiffani-angus.com and @tiffaniangus

HWA member Theresa Derwin writes SF, Urban Fantasy & Horror and has over thirty anthology acceptances. One coming soon is ‘Below the Stairs’ with Ramsey Campbell and Clive Barker. She writes book reviews at her site www.terror-tree.co.uk. She’s had three collections published: ‘Monsters Anonymous’ (currently reworking), ‘Season’s Creepings’ and ‘Wolf at The Door’. She edited Weird Ales 2016, creating vol 2 and 3 in 2017. Forthcoming books are ‘Once Upon a Feather’ then ‘God’s Vengeance’ from Crystal Lake Publishing. In 2018 she commences a study of #WomeninHorror. Twitter @BarbarellaFem

William Thirsk Gaskill was born in Leeds in 1967. He studied chemistry at the University of Liverpool, where he contributed to a fanzine called Dregs. He began writing seriously in 2010, after completing a diploma with the Open University. William appears regularly on the West Yorkshire spoken word circuit. William and his wife, Valerie Anderson, appeared together in the 2017 Wakefield Litfest, under the title Welcome To The Mad. His debut short fiction collection, Something I Need To Tell You, from Stairwell Books, comes out in 2018.

Ambitious, Dean M Drinkel is a published author, editor, award winning script-writer and film director. He has over thirty credits to his name in the field of genre writing (including short stories, collections, novellas, anthologies); has written and directed fifteen theatrical plays in London and South East of England. In 2016 Dean moved to Cannes, France to write a script with Romain Collier which was to become entitled “The Tragedy Of The Duke of Reichstadt”. This won two screenplay awards (Best Historical Drama / Best Independent Spirit) at the Monaco International Film Festival. In 2017 Dean directed the short film “15” for Midas Light Films and in April 2018 will direct (also for MLF) “Echoes of Mine” based on his own script. Dean will be following this with “The Lake” – an historical short film about the Empress Eugenie and a young piano-tuner to be shot in Chislehurst, Kent at their former home – Camden Place. Dean has won five awards (thus far) for his script-writing and was runner-up for the 2001 Sir Peter Ustinov Screenwriting Award (International Emmys) – for his script “Ghosts”.

Posted in Genre, Uncategorized, Writing Tagged with: , , , , , , ,

2017-2018 – What did we do? Where are we going?

Satan mimics the Statue of LibertyWhat did we do in 2017…

We started 2017 hotly promoting our latest Clovenhoof novella, Clovenhoof and the Trump of Doom. This was a story, written in the days after Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election. We had great fun writing it and fans have taken really well to it, although some readers did object to possible political bias regarding the hot topic of Trump and the UK Brexit vote. Clovenhoof will definitely keep his nose out of international politics from now on, although it did attract the attention of MTV.

Fairy tale silhouettesIn April, we published a brand new and original novel, Disenchanted. We wanted to write a book about fairy tales but we’re not the kind of people who want a princess who’s just going to hang around the palace, waiting for her prince to come and rescue her. We decided to write about a woman who wasn’t interested in hooking up with Prince Charming or getting the Happily Ever After everyone else wants her to have. And so our heroine, Ella, has the challenge of avoiding forceful suitors, ditching seven persistent dwarfs who want to help her and generally avoiding anything that looks like it stepped out of the pages of the Brothers Grimm.

In April we also helped to celebrate the 50th birthday of Adrian Mole. Our specially commissioned Mole short Let Them Eat Custard Creams formed part of the celebrations, held at Leicester university and sponsored by Penguin.

In July, we published Oddjobs 2, sequel to the workplace comedy we published in 2016. The Oddjobs stories follow a group of office workers who have the unenviable job of making sure that the end of the world goes according to plan. Horrible monsters from another dimension are poised to devour the world and it’s our heroes’ mission to make sure the Great British public don’t panic and no one makes a great big fuss about it. By the end of Oddjobs 2 – spoilers! – the world has not yet ended so there are still further stories in the series.

Also in July, we filmed a Facebook advert to promote the book, Disenchanted. We decided that the best way to illustrate the ‘you don’t need a fairy tale wedding to be happy’ theme was to blow up a wedding cake. We had… interesting results. Here is the advert if you want to take a look (give it a like or a comment if you’re feeling generous). There was violence and fire and there were casualties. But we had a lot of fun. We ‘ve even cobbled together a Making Of video…

December saw the publication of 12 Dark Days: One Hell of a Christmas. This was an anthology project masterminded by Dean M Drinkel, where each author wrote a story for one of the twelve days of Christmas. We took “Eight Maids a-Milking” and made sure it was very, very silly.George RR Martin with sinister baby

Conventions…
In April Heide went to Stokercon in Long Beach, California. It was held on the Queen Mary and was a wonderful chance to meet writers from the US and beyond. Heide could not resist the opportunity to bother George RR Martin with her satanic Baby.

In July we ran a comedy writing workshop at Edgelit in Derby and popped up on a couple of panels as well.

In September we ran the comedy writing workshop at Fantasycon. We were both lucky enough to be on several panels, but we still found time for plenty of chatting in the bar with our friends as well.

We attended meetups with readers in Leeds, Birmingham and London. At these events we performed customised karaoke, led a kazoo orchestra and organised a giant pass the parcel, because we like to keep things low-key.

What we’re doing in 2018…

 

A Spell in the Country

On 23rd February, our first book of 2018 will be published. A Spell in the Country, a comedy about three very different witches meeting up at a witching training course in the countryside, is already available for pre-order. Click here to pre-order your copy and look at Mike Watts’ stylish cover artwork.

 

2018 will also see the release of Oddjobs 3. We’ve had such positive feedback for Oddjobs 1 & 2 (and so much fun writing them!) that we will be pushing this forward in our schedules so that we can get it out to the reading public as soon as possible.

But we haven’t forgotten old Jeremy Clovenhoof. We’re currently partway through writing duties on not only Clovenhoof Book 7 but also Clovenhoof Book 8! Both will see publication in 2018.

We will be delivering a number of writing workshops this year. Among them will be a workshop on story structure and plot we’ll be running in Birmingham on June 16th.

We’ll also be attending various writing conventions and meetups with readers groups in Leeds, Birmingham, Derby and Chester. No trips to California this year although Heide is toying with the idea of going to Edinburgh.

Posted in 2017, 2018, Books, Events, Reflections

Short story: A Christmas Baby

We offer to you a Christmas short story, featuring Baby.
Baby reads book

You might have seen pictures of Baby before, if you follow us on social media.
Our relationship with Baby was originally intended to be a short-term one, mainly for some amusing publicity pictures when we released Beelzebelle, which features a baby.
Baby had other ideas though, and has now been to numerous fantasy and horror conventions, bothering everyone, including George R R Martin.

George RR Martin with sinister baby
After nearly two years, life without Baby is unthinkable, and so, it was only a matter of time before Baby became the subject matter for a short story.
With compliments of the season, here is a short story featuring our favourite infant.

A Christmas Baby

Baby nativity

Rupert settled into his favourite leather chair. The comforting clatter of James arriving with his coddled eggs soothed his soul. The terrific wrench of getting out of bed in the morning was made bearable with this carefully honed routine. This morning however, there was a difficult conversation to be had. As James poured the tea, Rupert looked him full in the eye.
“James, have you moved Baby?” he asked. “The high chair is empty.”
“Ah, yes sir. I have re-located Baby to a sealed box in the loft.”
“Dash it, James!” spluttered Rupert. “Why would you do that?”
“There have been complaints, sir,” said James. “A most regrettable accident with the window cleaner. He fell off his ladder and, I am told, even after the doctors ruled out concussion he was heard to mumble incoherently about evil eyes staring at him. I fear he encountered Baby.”
“Nonsense, I bet it was next door’s pug,” said Rupert.
“I can’t imagine young Boots being visible from the top of the ladder,” said James. “I feel that it will be better for all if Baby is kept away from prying eyes.”
Rupert cast anxiously about for the correct words. When James got these stubborn ideas into his head, he tended to forget all about the traditional employee / employer relationship and became quite immovable. It wouldn’t do to drive a wedge between them. There were plenty of other opportunities open to the very best gentleman’s gentleman. Butlering might be a scarcely-populated profession these days, but that would make James even more sought-after on an open market. The problem that Rupert faced was one of brain power. He relied very much on James to tackle advanced problem solving, whether it was deciding what to serve for supper, or negotiating with a crime lord whose briefcase full of money had got muddled up with the de-luxe backgammon set. When it came to Rupert’s own ideas though, his head was normally as empty and hollow as the charming set of bongo drums that he’d found on the market (which was also missing, presumed relocated to the loft). However, when Baby was around, he found that his head blossomed with ideas, many of them incredibly exciting. James was aware of this phenomenon, but had reservations about the influence of Baby. Just because a few of those ideas had ended badly, he sought to limit contact with Baby.
“Very well James, I will concede to your wishes, but could I perhaps be allowed to have a small tea party with Baby in attendance? I should very much like to wish Baby a Merry Christmas.”
James gave a tiny bow. “Very good sir. I shall be happy to arrange limited access for special occasions. Might I also remind you that Miss Ashna will be coming along later as well?”
“Ah, capital! She can join the tea party. Will there be Battenberg, James?”
“Of course, sir,” said James.

“My favourite people, all together!” declared Rupert as James placed a cake stand on the table, loaded with Battenberg and other treats.
Ashna turned and gave him a narrow-eyed look as she poured tea from the china pot. “I strongly suspect that you’re including your hideous Baby in that group,” she said. “I’ve never properly understood your fixation with the wretched thing. I mean, look at its face!”
“Shush! No need to be rude. Baby’s looks are unique, I’ll give you that.”
“Oh Rupert, that face has surely been chewed by a dog. It’s horrible,” said Ashna. “And no, I’m not pouring tea for Baby.”
Rupert replaced the extra cup with a small sigh, but slipped a plate of Battenberg in front of Baby. “There you go,” he murmured, sotto voce.
“Your Christmas decorations look lovely,” said Ashna.
“Yes. James has done us proud once again. The man’s a genius in so many ways.”
“He really is,” said Ashna, standing so that she could survey the entire room. “Such an eye for colour. Such a balance of texture. He has the most exquisite taste.”
“Yes. Well, I chose the tree,” said Rupert, keen to be the recipient of at least some of Ashna’s admiration. “Literally picked my way through dozens of contenders to find the cream of the crop. Wasn’t easy, I can tell you.”
“You know, you’ve given me a thought. I wonder if you and James would mind helping me with something later today?”
“I’m certain we’d give it our best shot. What do you need?”
“Just a little help with a window display I’m working on in the Bull Ring. Maybe you could meet me there at six this evening? It’s next door to the doughnut shop that you like.”
“Absolutely. You had me at doughnuts!”

Just before six, James and Rupert walked through the Bull Ring.
“I find it most bizarre that Miss Ashna would insist that you bring Baby along, sir. I have never seen any indication that she holds Baby at that level of esteem.”
“Well, she didn’t insist exactly. I was more reading between the lines, if you know what I mean?”
“I’m afraid that I probably do, sir,” intoned James, with a look that Rupert wasn’t sure he entirely approved of.
“Right, doughnuts first!” Rupert said gleefully as they approached.
“Sir might consider saving that treat until afterwards, to avoid the nuisance of sticky fingers during the task ahead,” suggested James.
“Oh, you’re right. I’m sure I can manage for a short while.” Rupert stopped and sniffed the air. “But I can smell them, James. This might be difficult.”
“I have every confidence that sir can muster the inner strength required,” said James.
“We’ll see,” said Rupert, casting a longing gaze at the doughnut shop. “This shop here must be the one Ashna needs help with. Look, the window display isn’t finished yet.”
The window featured a delightful rustic scene, with hay bales and rough-sawn beams holding up a low roof. The lighting was subdued, apart from spotlights trained on some crisp, white household linens piled on the hay bales.
“Did Miss Ashna indicate what would be required of us, sir?” asked James as Rupert pushed through the door of the shop.
“Yes, sort of,” said Rupert. “We need to use our initiative. I’d say it’s pretty damned obvious, wouldn’t you? Everything’s laid out for a nativity scene. We just need to step in and finish it off. Now, how do we get into the window display? We can make a start before Ashna gets here.”
James found the mechanism for opening a small door to the window display and they stepped inside.
“Well this all looks pretty straightforward, wouldn’t you say?” said Rupert. “We have the traditional outfits for Mary and Joseph just here.”
“Those are tea towels, tablecloths and blankets, sir.”
“Yes, traditional outfits, as I said. Come on, you can be Mary,” said Rupert.
“Might I suggest that sir would be better cast in the role of Mary? That is, if we are maintaining the tradition that Mary is slight of build and short of stature.”
“What? But…oh I suppose so. Although, I do lack some of the attributes of a woman. Two rather obvious attributes, James.”
“There is no need for vulgarity, sir.”
“Oh, but I have an idea,” said Rupert. “You get busy with the tea towels. I shan’t be a moment.”
Rupert, as promised, was back from his errand in a few short minutes, bag in hand, and returned to find James folding towels expertly. “It just so happens that I have a number of safety pins about my person. Mary will need a white head dress and a blue cloak, as depicted in so many classical paintings.”
Rupert considered the Mary costume James had whipped up for him and, glancing aside to check if James was watching, dipped into his bag of purchases to pad out his bosom.
“How busty do you think Mary should be?” asked Rupert.
“Sir. I do not feel it’s my place to answer such thorny theological questions. Why do you ask?”
“Nothing, nothing,” said Rupert. He licked his now sugary fingers and patted his false bosom.
“It is a pity that I was not forewarned of the need to play Joseph,” said James thoughtfully. “I might have taken the liberty of growing a discreet beard for the occasion.”
“Just stick out your chin and look manly, James. You’ll look wonderful. That blanket suits you by the way. Don’t forget Baby’s outfit.”
James wrapped Baby in some extra tea towels and looked questioningly at Rupert. “We don’t have a manger. Would sir like to hold Baby, in the manner of a proud mother?
“I certainly would, James. Now, try to look biblical for our admirers, we’ve already drawn quite a crowd.”
Rupert settled into position and concentrated on looking like an adoring mother to the Messiah. James stood to the side, every inch the proud, but somewhat confused father to the virgin birth.
“This is surely the true meaning of Christmas, James,” murmured Rupert happily. “Showing the kiddies what it – gnom – was really like on that magical night, all those years ago.”
“Indeed sir, although I think you should perhaps tone down your smile a little,” whispered James from the corner of his mouth. “It rather appears as though you are about to eat the Baby Jesus.”
“Right you are, James. Now let’s just watch their little faces, shall we? Gnom, gnom.”
“Are you eating, sir?”
“Gno,” said James.
“I swear I can smell doughnuts.”
“Not me,” said Rupert, stuffing the final piece of evidence into his mouth.
Rupert gazed out at the crowd, but then a frown creased his brow. “What exactly is wrong with their faces, James? I know children are somewhat prone to crying, especially when one makes a genuine mistake vis-à-vis the blackcurrant squash. I can’t help that it so resembles the cooking sherry, can I? Anyway, is it normal for them all to be crying at the same time?”
“I think not, sir. I would venture that they find the sight of Baby disagreeable. Perhaps if sir turned the head away from the window a little?”
“That just can’t be right James, Baby is the star of the show! No, I daresay there is another reason for the upset. A contagion perhaps, or an overindulgence in festive sweetmeats.”
The growing restlessness of the crowd outside did indicate that perhaps some mass illness had taken hold. Some of the adults were exhibiting symptoms. A man in a beanie hat near to the front had a hand over his mouth, and a panicked look in his eye. As Rupert watched, he turned and tried to run. The crowd made this difficult and he knocked over a small child. A large man, presumably the child’s father, took exception to this and thumped the man with a loud and angry roar.
It wasn’t entirely clear how this small ruckus escalated so quickly, but it seemed to Rupert that violence blossomed from the epicentre. Shoving and shouting turned to punching, kicking and hair-pulling. Very soon, everyone in sight of the window was engaged in a fight.
“James, things seem to have taken a somewhat rum turn outside,” whispered Rupert.
“Indeed sir. It was perhaps inadvisable to bring Baby into a crowded shopping centre.”
As they watched, security guards appeared, but they were overcome by the sheer number of crazed shoppers, firmly in the grip of whatever bloodlust had overtaken them.
“I think that the time has come for a discreet withdrawal, sir,” said James, letting his blanket slip to the ground. “Let me help you out of your robes.”
Moments later, the linens were folded and back on the haybales and the two men had stepped out of the window display.
James found a large carrier bag to carry Baby.
“Sir,” he said.
“Yes, James?”
“May I postulate a theory?”
“Do I normally permit you to postulate?”
“You’ve never objected before. I put it to you, sir, that you chose to enhance your Mary’s bosom with a selection of doughnuts from the shop next door.”
“That’s dashed observant of you. They were so enticing and then I thought to myself that doughnuts are soft and squishy and I’ve had it on good account from Bunty Chapelforth that ladies’ –”
“Yes, sir. But I would also contend that you got a mite peckish during our dramatic presentation.”
“They are most enticing, James.”
“Jam-filled doughnuts, sir?”
“The preferred doughnut of any British gentleman.”
James diffidently took Baby and turned the ugly infant round to face Rupert.
“Note, if you will, sir, the splodges of jam that fell on Baby’s brow. Here. And here. Large, almost conical splodges.”
“Ah, the jig is up. That’s how you knew, eh? Ha! It’s funny. Those splodges look like tiny red horns. It’s almost as if our little nativity Jesus was a little nativity Satan. Humorous, eh?”
James raised an eyebrow. Rupert could still hear the brawling crowd. Sirens sounded from somewhere outside.
“Oh, dear,” said Rupert.
The two of them and their inanimate chum made a swift exit into the shopping arcade. Rupert’s hasty steps took him towards the doughnut shop, but as he was about to enter, he noticed that the shop on the other side had a large, unfinished window display featuring a Christmas tree and a traditional fireplace with stockings hanging on either side. Most significantly of all, it also contained Ashna, who was arranging decorations on the tree.
“Oh look James, what are the chances that Ashna is doing the displays on both sides of the doughnut shop?”
“Extremely slim, sir,” intoned James, “I should imagine that she is just doing the one. This one.”
The implication of this took a few moments to settle into Rupert’s brain. He looked back at the shop with the hay bales and then at James. “Oh,” he said. “Oh.” Then he glanced to the side and beamed with pleasure at what he saw. “Hey ho, come on James, let’s get some more doughnuts. I bet Ashna could do with a small snack.”

Posted in 2017, Writing

Comedy Influences – Heide

Fantasycon panel: what made you want to be funny?

I was on a very lively panel at Fantasycon talking about Humour in Genre Fiction. It was lively because it was chaired by Donna Bond who whipped things along at a frantic pace and got loads of laughs out of everyone.
Chris Brookmyre talked about the opening scene in Quite Ugly One Morning which features the memorable addition of a “jobbie” on the mantlepiece. Adam Millard described his book Zoonami as “like Sharknado but with the whole zoo”. Duncan Bradshaw and Jen Williams were hilarious and charming.
One of the early questions, put to us all, was “what made you want to be funny?”.

Heide Goody, Bob Carolgees and Spit the Dog

Heide and Bob

The answer I gave on the day was to reveal that my uncle is Bob Carolgees, who appalled the nation in the 1980s with a comedy punk dog called Spit.

It’s true that as a teen I craved the laughs that Bob could generate with his stage show and on Tiswas, an anarchic Saturday morning TV show of the time.

Other influences

A grounding in British sitcoms is part of the story as well. Anyone who grew up with Fawlty Towers, Blackadder and Father Ted is primed for comedy.

AC/DC

I’m still not sure that’s the whole story though. 

With the passing of Malcolm Young in recent days, I have been reflecting on how AC/DC are layered in there somewhere as a comedy influence. Their music is riddled with double-entendres and corny wordplay.
A live performance by them has always been a masterclass in whipping the audience into a hollering frenzy.

I was alerted this week to a wonderful parody routine by comedian Jim Breuer which captures exactly what it’s like.

AC/DC 2016 Olympic Park

AC/DC at Olympic Park London, 2016

And what about the props? Giant inflatable women, cannons, trains and bells. It’s as if they went to the slapstick cupboard and decided to get everything out. EVERYTHING.
Angus Young still dresses as a schoolboy. He started doing it when he was a schoolboy, but now he’s in his sixties he does it because everyone expects him to. Because it’s funny. He is also famously aware of the reputation that the band has for making formulaic songs. In an interview,when it was suggested that the band had put out 11 albums that all sound exactly the same, he angrily countered the accusations, saying that actually they’d put out 12 albums that all sound exactly the same…

Crossword

In case you’re not convinced about the corny wordplay, a few years ago I made a crossword for a charity magazine inspired by some of AC/DC’s finest work.

I shall attempt to reproduce it here for your entertainment. See how you get on:
Crossword grid

Clues:

Across

1 and 3
Quote from an AC/DC song: “some _____ are held for charity and some for fancy dress, but when they’re held for pleasure they’re the _____ that I like best”

Down

1. Sporting equipment made by Gilbert
2. What does the Spanish word Cojones mean?

Posted in 2017 Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Baby’s guide to Fantasycon

Baby has now been to two Fantasycons and wanted to pass on some top tips for getting the most out of a convention.
Here’s Baby’s guide to Fantasycon.

Preparation

Baby reads the Fantasycon programme

Consult the programme!

Consult the programme.
So many exciting things to see! Which events to attend? Where are the clashes? When will you eat?

Preparation is a great idea, but as Baby knows all too well, you sometimes get chatting in the bar and just forget the time.

Socialise, but not like this!

Fanstasycon is filled with wonderful people. Mostly they are delighted if you take time to say hello to them, but it’s important to respect boundaries and be polite.

Baby is captured here trying to steal Guest of Honour Ben Aaranovitch’s pint

 

Baby was heard muttering “Don’t you know who I am?” to this young lady

 

Baby no! Violence is never the answer

 

Attending panels

Wait until invited to ask questions of the panel.

Nobody likes a show-off: Everyone moved away in disgust here after Baby asked a long rambling question that was actually a statement

 

Join in the fun

Baby really wanted to have a go at karaoke, but nobody wanted to hear (or foot the bill for) Baby’s re-interpretation of Nick Lowe’s I love the sound of breaking glass featuring real breakages.

Baby had to make do with dancing along.

 

Posted in 2017 Tagged with: , , , , , ,

5 things I took away from Fantasycon 2017

Just back from Fantasycon 2017 in Peterborough. But what have I taken away with me, apart from too many books and a mild hangover? I took away five things.

#1 – You always learn something new at Fantasycon

On the Saturday night, I was moderating the Mythology and Folklore panel (Brilliant panel! Packed room!) when an audience member asked the panel what their favourite myth or piece of folklore was. It was one of those questions that I had wanted to ask the panel but one they had vetoed in the pre-panel e-mail discussion because they didn’t want the whole thing to descend into a “my god’s bigger than your god” fight.
But the question was asked and Eliza Chan replied, “Does everyone know about the Tanuki?” We didn’t. They are, to quote Eliza, “Japanese raccoon dogs with huge hairy testicles.” And they are. And Eliza gave us a whistle-stop tour of myths and legend and how these scrotally-enhanced magical beings are still relevant to Japanese culture today. Read about them here.
That nugget was almost topped by something I learned from Jacey Bedford on the Writing Research panel on Sunday afternoon. On the question, of things we’ve researched that seem too incredible to use in writing, Jacey gave us a potted history of the Polish Winged Cavalry. It’s not just a name. They had wings! Want to know more? Go research it!

 

#2 – Every panel is about the audience

Possibly my favourite panel of the weekend was the Collaborative Writing panel late on Saturday night. I was one of four panellists, discussing some very different approaches to working with others. It became very clear that this panel needed to be about answering the audience’s questions and offering some practical advice.
The entire audience asked questions and we did our best to answer them without appearing off-putting about the challenges of collaborative writing. We then insisted on taking the audience to the hotel bar and buying the audience a drink before taking the audience to the karaoke session where we all enjoyed the sight of panellist Dean M Drinkel reinterpreting the works of REM.
I think the audience enjoyed it. Thanks for coming, Natasha.

 

#3 – Fantasycon is worth the journey, no matter how far

Some people always have a long journey to get to Fantasycon and there are some friends from far afield who had to do more than pootle down the A14 to get to Peterborough. I was delighted to finally meet Justin Lee Anderson at Fantasycon this year. I’ve known Justin through social media, contributions to anthologies and his brilliant debut novel Carpet Diem but it took Fantasycon to bring us together. At the thought-provoking world-building workshop on Sunday morning, Vic James awarded copies of her novels, Gilded Cage and Tarnished City, to the person who had travelled the furthest to attend. Justin will be taking those back with him to Edinburgh. People have come from further afield to this con and previous ones and I hope to meet some of them again at Fantasycon 2018 in Chester.

 

#4 – Fantasycon is open to everyone

Fantasycon is a very welcoming convention. The organisers have made every effort to accommodate all people and make sure no one feels excluded. I think that’s why you see people coming back year after year. Even so, there is the occasional individual whose disturbing appearance, abnormal behaviour and general freakishness are so off-putting that one must question how tolerant we should be.
I am, of course, talking about Baby.
Not for the first time, my co-writer Heide brought the world’s most unpleasant doll to Fantasycon. What had started out as a promotional tool for a novel – over eighteen months ago! – has turned into a some sort of carnival show of plastic hideousness. I’m sure that many con attendees see it all as ‘a bit of fun’ and not the cry for help that it clearly is.


If you see Baby, please do not approach. You are not joining in with the fun. You are an enabler.
We have the photographic evidence. I don’t want to see it happen again.

 

#5 – It’s the people, not the place that makes Fantasycon what it is

I had my doubts about Peterborough. Last year, when I asked my wife if she wanted to attend Fantasycon by the Sea in Scarborough, she jumped at the opportunity to go on an all-expenses paid trip to the coast. This year, when I asked my wife if she wanted to come to Peterborough for the weekend, she gave me a look of horror tinged with pity.
Actually, Peterborough was perfectly lovely and the convention hotel was definitely on the good side of adequate (although there were more cursed mirrors and haunted paintings in that place than I usually like).
But, as always, it was the people who made it a great weekend: the organisers, the redcloaks, the dealers, the panellists, the moderators, the workshop facilitators and the other attendees. I thought I was going to get a quiet hour or two to myself on Sunday to finish writing a difficult chapter but there was always a friend or social media acquaintance to catch up with in the bar and that chapter is still unfinished. And I’m not complaining.

Posted in 2017, Events

Fantasycon 2017 – Heide and Iain’s appearances

Panel at a previous Fantasycon

Panel at a previous Fantasycon

Fantasycon

Fantasycon is in Peterborough this year, from 29th September to 1st October.
If you’re thinking of coming along, it would be great to see you.
It’s a friendly convention, and in spite of the name, you’ll find writers and readers of all types there.
Heide and Iain are making several appearances at Fantasycon this year, so we’ve listed them all for you, to make it easier.

Friday

15:30 “The author as a business” (Heide will join this panel event)
22:00 Iain will be doing a reading

Saturday

10:00 Comedy Writing workshop, run by Heide and Iain
14:00 “Humour in genre fiction” (Heide will join this panel event)
15:00 Heide will be doing a reading
20:30 “Mythology, folk tales & the imagination” (Iain will join this panel event)
22:00 “Collaborative writing” (Heide and Iain will join this panel event)

Sunday

13:00 “Writing Research” (Iain will join this panel event)

A non-Fantasycon event:
20:00 Fiction Fix in the Draper’s Arms, Peterborough

Posted in 2017, Events

Pirate community welcomes LGBT military personnel

Prominent members of the pirate community have encouraged LGBT individuals to join them.
Captain Hector Barbossa declared that pirates have led the way for many years when it comes to diversity.

“The scurvy cap’n of the free world complains about medical expenses to support trans personnel and struggles to understand bathroom niceties,” he said. “Yer’ll never come across any of those issues on a pirate ship. Anyone brave enough to use the head is welcome and the daily rum allowance keeps us all in peak physical condition.”

He has this message for worried US military personnel. “Come and join our merry band. All welcome. Ye’ll get full training on how to talk like a pirate. Arr. And songs about pirates, if the fancy takes ye. Easy to learn, especially with yer belly full o’ rum. If yer wants to bring a warship with yer, that’d be grand. Or a parrot. We likes parrots.”

Posted in 2017 Tagged with: ,

Disenchanted blog tour – Epiphany’s story

Disenchanted is now available to buy, and to celebrate, we’ve had a blog tour.
We’ve reproduced the story fragments used on the blog tour here for your convenience; all six make an entire short story.

The blog tour stops were the ones you can see on this banner, and we’d like to thank those lovely bloggers who helped us to launch the book!
Disenchanted blog Tour Banner

Epiphany’s Story part 1 – Leeds

Original blog post here

Dr Epiphany Alexander

Dr Epiphany Alexander

Heide and Iain’s latest novel, Disenchanted, is out this month. The fairy tale fantasy comedy was written with no small assistance from Dr Epiphany Alexander of Sheffield University’s Department for Folklore and Oral History. As an insight into the research material used to create Disenchanted, we present one of Dr Alexander’s letters to the author duo.

My Dear Friends,

Thank you for the invitation to your book launch event in Birmingham a week on Saturday. I hope to be able to attend, although I am currently away on university business in Leeds which is all very exciting. My father told me never to trust a Yorkshireman whose eyebrows meet in the middle and I have been very watchful throughout my journey. I came here to meet with Professor Scarrow of Leeds University to discuss some papers that have recently come to light. I have seen his photograph previously and know I have little to fear regarding his eyebrows.

I travelled up this morning on the train with Pak Choi who has been a loyal retainer to our family for more decades than I care to guess and has promised to defend me from the monobrows. I discovered en route that he is the first of the fair folk to travel on board a train and he was quite excited by the experience, to the extent that we were removed from the Quiet Zone and told to stand outside the train toilets until Pak Choi had calmed down.

Pak Choi has drawn a picture of him sharing his excitement with the train conductor

We arrived this morning to find the sun shining over the city, which came as a surprise as I was given to understand that Leeds was famed for being constantly overcast and grey, hence the phrase ‘stick it where the sun don’t shine’ (though why exactly numerous people feel I should take my complaints and honest enquiries and send them to Leeds is a socio-linguistic mystery). Our bus stop for the university was on Boar Lane and as we waited I was put in mind of the local fairy tale of The Owl Boy.

The town of Leeds – ‘the town of the fast-flowing river’ as I’m sure you know – was, according to Bede’s tale, being terrorised by a giant boar with tusks like spears and bristles like iron needles. The brave men of Yorkshire (who will tell you they are the bravest men in the world, repeatedly and often and twice as often after a few beers) attacked the boar and were either repelled or killed. It seemed that no mortal weapon could kill the boar and the town would have to live under its tyranny, but then a simple lad came down from the hills with a sheepskin to sell. Upon hearing about the terrible boar, he told the townsfolk he would rid them of the menace. Of course, they laughed at him and refused to listen. But that night he sought out the boar on the common by the river. Presently, the boar appeared and made to attack the boy. The boy let out a curious whistle and, down from the darkness, came three owls which distracted and tormented the boar. The boy whistled again and the owls plucked a star apiece from the sky which dazzled and enraged the boar further. The boy whistled a third time and the owls flew over the river with their dazzling stars. The boar, near-blinded and filled with fury, charged at them, fell into the River Aire and drowned. The townsfolk gave thanks, made the boy an alderman of the town and, to this day, the coat of arms of the city contains three owls, three stars and the sheepskin that the simple boy had brought down from the hills.

Pak Choi has drawn his own picture of the Leeds Coat of Arms

A fascinating tale, yes? Perhaps worthy of inclusion in the second volume of your book. (You describe it as a fairy tale comedy. I envisage something akin to The Golden Bough but with more knock knock jokes. Is that about the measure of it?)

The young people of Leeds might learn a thing or two about manners and civic duty from the Owl Boy. On the bus to the university, several teenagers teased Pak Choi quite savagely about his cobweb waistcoat and thistledown pantaloons and a most unpleasant girl called him a ‘great big puff’. In retaliation, Pak Choi stole the colour from the girl’s eyes and told her she could only have it back if she spoke nothing but truths for a year.

We alighted at the university campus not in the best of moods and crossed St George’s Fields to seek out Professor Scarrow’s office. St George’s Fields is the burial place of, amongst others, Pablo Fanque, the famed equestrian and later circus owner. I am given to understand that The Beatles make reference to him in one of their songs but I’m not up to date with popular music so couldn’t be certain. What I do know is that the circus had, back in the day when such things were regarded as acceptable, a freak performer known as the Parrot Man. A local tale that has since built up recounts that the Parrot Man fled the circus and took up residence in Meanwood woods. The tale is classified as type 333 under the Aarne-Thompson-Uther system, a variant on the Red Riding Hood story (but with an eye-pecking Parrot Man in place of the wolf!).

Professor Scarrow took us to lunch at a charming little pub not far from the university. He insisted that we have a bottle of red with our meal even though I rarely drink and I suspect Professor Scarrow had already imbibed a glass or two before lunch. Professor Scarrow spilled gravy on his tie, shouted loudly at the barman and totally ignored Pak Choi. It transpired that Professor Scarrow has recently had what can only be termed ‘a messy divorce’ and has not coped well. Over a tear-spattered crème brûlée dessert, Professor Scarrow recounted the many wrongs he has suffered leading up to his wife running off with a sixth form college lecturer from Tadcaster. By this time, Professor Scarrow was clutching my hand across the dining table and I had to somewhat sternly remind him that I had come to see him on business and perhaps we ought to be about it.

The weary and somewhat remorseful Professor Scarrow took me to the university library and, as he drunkenly searched among dusty records in the library basement, asked me what I knew of the story of The Prophet Hen of Leeds. I told him what I knew.

The Prophet Hen of Leeds is a curious tale in that it blends together obvious fairy tale elements with historical fact. Once upon a time – in the late 18th Century – there was a witch who made two bold claims: that she could protect the people of Leeds from curses and that her hen could predict the future (her hen was shown on several occasions to produce eggs marked with the words “Christ is coming.”) However, neither claim proved to be true. In the matter of curses, the witch was discovered to have been systematically poisoning local folk and simply stopped poisoning those who bought her magic charms. As to the prophetic hen, the witch was uncovered by a keen-eyed local who saw her writing on an eggshell with acid and then carefully reinserting the egg back up the hen’s fundament.

Pak Choi’s illustration of a mightily surprised chicken

The poisoning of a young housewife proved to be the witch’s undoing. A magistrate’s investigations into the death led him slowly but certainly to the witch’s door. It is said that in the days before her arrest, the witch’s prophet hen began laying eggs marked with the words “Death is coming” and that none could explain how this was accomplished.

I asked Professor Scarrow if it was true that the witch’s skeleton was still held by the University of Leeds. He told me that it was, although it’s not on public display for reasons of taste. I had also heard that, after her death, the witch’s skin was removed, tanned into leather and sold off to raise money for the local children’s infirmary. And this, it turned out, was the reason for his invite to me. From an archive box, Professor Scarrow produce a sheet of vellum parchment. But, dearest friends, you will probably no doubt realise that it was not vellum but human hide! And on it… well, I could scarcely believe my eyes and requested a closer look.

As he passed the peculiar document to me, Professor Scarrow’s hand brushed mine and, perhaps still somewhat intoxicated, he tried to kiss me. Oh, to see a respected academic behave in such a deplorable way! It was shameful! Fortunately, Pak Choi was present and concussed the outrageous professor with a bound doctoral thesis. (Incidentally, that is one of the hallmarks of a good thesis; if it’s not heavy enough to knock out a professor then it probably lacks rigour).

This evening I have retired to a charming city centre hotel to recoup myself spiritually and read the witch-hide manuscript. I ordered a club sandwich from room service. However, the young somewhat fox-faced man who brought it to the room had eyebrows that met in the middle so I have not yet decided if I will eat it or not.

I will write again,
Yours,

Dr E. Alexander

Dr Epiphany Alexander’s latest book, “It Bears Repeating: The Enduring Appeal of Goldilocks” is currently available from Sheffield Academic Press.
Heide Goody and Iain Grant’s novel, Disenchanted, is available now from Amazon.

Epiphany’s Story part 2 – Sheffield

Original blog post here
Heide and Iain’s latest novel, Disenchanted, is out this month. The fairy tale fantasy comedy was written with no small assistance from Dr Epiphany Alexander of Sheffield University’s Department for Folklore and Oral History. As an insight into the research material used to create Disenchanted, we present one of Dr Alexander’s letters to the author duo.

My Dear Friends,

I came home from my trip to Leeds to find a copy of your book, Disenchanted, on my doormat. The artwork is delightful and the jacket text suggests a very, um, eventful narrative. I’m sure I will love it and will no doubt be able to give you a critical opinion when we meet a week on Saturday. It is my habit to read in the rear study perhaps with a round of cucumber sandwiches and a pot of tea. Pak Choi, my loyal retainer, brews a superior dandelion tea but is, sadly, no help with the sandwiches (it’s the cutlery; his folk cannot abide the cold touch of iron). However, I realise now that such niceties as tea and reading will have to wait for the time being as I must be off again tomorrow.

tea cup

Pak Choi has drawn a superior picture of my usual tea

As I say, I came home to Sheffield to find your book on my doormat but, in all honesty, I was more distracted by the vellum parchment I had brought home with me. Its gruesome origins notwithstanding, it was a peculiar piece, covered as it was with writing in a precise hand but of an ink that had faded to almost total illegibility. There was little of it I could make out but there was a clear mention of Lang’s Black Fairy Book and that alone was enough to send me all aquiver.

 

I am sure as amateur students of fairy tales, you are aware of the Victorian scholar’s incomparable work in collecting and categorising fairy tales. His twelve ‘coloured’ books of fairy tales are well-known and widely published but I had only ever heard scandalous and dark rumours of this thirteenth volume. The only other word I could truly make out in the text was ‘domunculus’ which, whilst seeming tantalisingly familiar, was unknown to me.

 

To clear my head and perhaps inspire thought, Pak Choi and I took a walk.  My house backs onto Wardsend Cemetery, home to the final resting place of a Lakota Sioux who died in the city while performing with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. There is a local story about how the ghost of the Sioux flagged down a train and thereby prevented a collision with a derailed coal truck but, delicious though it is, my research into the matter traces the story back to no earlier than 1973 and an argument between two drunken Sheffield Wednesday fans in the Masons Arms. This is how fairy tales are born.

 

We cut through the cemetery, past the Trebor sweet factory and down to the banks of the River Don. There is a veritable forest of fig trees growing along the Don towards the east of the city. The trees are hardly native. As best anyone can tell, their roots – not their literal roots, dear friends – are the fig roll factories that dotted the area. However, used to a Mediterranean climate, the original fig trees were only able to grow because of the hot water being continually pumped into the Don by the riverside steel works. Pak Choi and I did not make it as far as the fig trees but when we do, I always try to spot any flowers on the trees, just like Dunzfel in the old  Eastern European tale.

 

The Six Tasks of Dunzfel appears in Lang’s Lilac Fairy Book. It is one of a broad range of fairy tales in which the poor protagonist – in this case, a young man who wished to marry the princess – is forced to undertake a number of seemingly impossible tasks. In Dunzfel’s case, the tasks are to fill a barrel of water from a well using only a sieve, to state the number of hairs on the king’s head, to hold his breath from one year to the next, to collect a posy of a thousand fig flowers, to weave a carpet from spider’s silk, and to summon all the wolves in the world. Dunzfel achieves most of these by cunning (he plucks a hair from the king’s head and tells him he has one less hair than before and holds his breath just before midnight on New Year’s Eve) and through the assistance of animal friends (who line his sieve with moss and find a thousand of the elusive fig flowers for him). The request for a rug of spider silk is answered with sarcasm (Dunzfel presents the king with a twig and says he will weave the rug on a loom fashioned by the king from the twig). The king waives the final task, seeing that Dunzfel has completed the other five and not wishing to have all the wolves in the world turn up on his doorstep.

We returned home in good spirits –  Pak Choi once again regaled me with the tale of why he had set fire to the Trebor factory in the early seventies (it is said that the ferocious fire that consumed the mountains of sugar in the factory created a burned toffee smell across the city for weeks)  – only to find that our house had been burgled! The downstairs rooms were in some disarray. Furniture had been overturned, drawers ransacked and items thrown from shelves. Anything and everything of value or interest had been taken. You will be pleased to hear that my copy of your book was untouched. But, most alarming of all, the vellum parchment I had placed at the very back of the desk drawer had been found and taken. Pak Choi thought this most suspicious.

Dog falling in Seine


Here is a picture of a drunk terrier falling into the Seine

I was suddenly reminded of the French tale of Rum Baba Boy. Perhaps the recollection was caused by the sight of the destruction of my home, coupled with Pak Choi’s talk of sweet factories. Rum Baba Boy is a curious variant of the gingerbread man story, except in this instance, the young protagonist is not made from gingerbread but alcohol-soaked pastry. The poor, drunken creature spends nearly the entire narrative running through the city, crying “lack-a-day, lack-a-day, who will find a cure for my malady?” Rum Baba Boy runs through the houses of Paris, looking for a cure for his drunken madness. He ransacks the home of a baker, a doctor, a lawyer, a priest and a merchant. Only when he reaches the poorest part of the city does a stray terrier offer him a cure for all his ills and gobbles him up. Unlike the gingerbread man, Rum Baba Boy does gain some form of revenge from beyond the grave; the terrier, intoxicated by the rum-soaked cake, falls in the Seine and drowns.

The human mind is a curious thing; the recalling of that story reminded me where I had encountered the word ‘domunculus’ before. I gave a sudden shout of “Bunty Jangles!” which, I can assure you, is not something I shout out often. I followed it with a shout of “I must go to Uttoxeter!” which is something I shout out even less.

While Pak Choi packed a small valise for me, I telephoned for a taxi-cab. The young man who came to the door had a bit of a terrier look about him and his not insignificant eyebrows put me in mind of the hotel-boy I met in Leeds. But we shouldn’t judge people by their appearances, should we?

I am taking my copy of your book with me and shall read it as I go on this little adventure of my own. 

I will write again,

Yours,

Dr E. Alexander

Dr Epiphany Alexander’s latest book, “Get Your Head Out Of The Clouds: Why Jack Shouldn’t Have Climbed That Beanstalk” is currently available from Sheffield Academic Press.

Heide Goody and Iain Grant’s novel, Disenchanted, is available now from Amazon.

Epiphany’s Story part 3 – Uttoxeter

Original blog post here
Heide and Iain’s latest novel, Disenchanted, is out this month. The fairy tale fantasy comedy was written with no small assistance from Dr Epiphany Alexander of Sheffield University’s Department for Folklore and Oral History. As an insight into the research material used to create Disenchanted, we present another of Dr Alexander’s letters to the author duo.

My Dear Friends,

In my current search for Lang’s Black Fairy Book, we took a taxi-cab from Sheffield to Uttoxeter. En route, I avoided the eye of the fox-like and monobrowed driver. Instead, I read the first few chapter of your book out to Pak Choi, my retainer and travelling companion, skipping over the more ‘fruity’ language you have used (which meant missing out most of the second chapter, I’m afraid). Pak Choi had a few choice words about your depiction of his fairy kindred and I have made some notes in the margin for your benefit.

I had telephoned ahead and arranged to visit the house of a retired librarian, Bunty Jangles. I knew Bunty from her time working in Sheffield’s archive, but I remembered that she’d moved back to her home town of Uttoxeter some years before. Her house was a short walk from the station, past the racecourse. There’s a fine tradition of racing in these parts, and I recalled the tale of The Dancing Goat.

It’s a story that goes back to the time when trading animals was a key part of the local economy. Uttoxeter was granted a market charter in 1251, and it was necessary to be on the lookout for sharp practice at all times in those days. A farmer wished to buy a pig, and had heard many stories about unwary buyers being passed off with a bag containing a cat or similar. You will know of course that this is the origin of the saying ‘to buy a pig in a poke’. This farmer clearly wasn’t familiar with what a pig actually looked like because instead of taking a careful look at the animal in question, he devised a test. It was said that a pig was the slowest of the beasts, and so his test was to put the animal in question into a sprint race with another animal whose provenance was known. He came upon a trader who was willing to submit his animal to this test and the farmer arranged for his neighbour’s pig to be entered into a race with it. Word spread, and bets were placed on the two animals. The crowd gathered as the race started, and the two animals were released simultaneously. The neighbour’s pig ran directly to the finish line, and the trader’s animal danced on the spot before trotting gently into second place. The farmer happily bought the beast, upon which the rest of the crowd informed him that it was in fact a goat. The tale ended happily however, because the farmer and his dancing goat were in great demand for festivities.

Dancing goat

Here’s a picture that Pak Choi has drawn of the goat dancing.

Bunty’s house is on the Stafford Road and she sat us down with a slice of her delicious apple pie. Bunty is a wiry old bird with an energy about her that many young folk would envy. She listened to all that I told her about the clue I had been presented with in Leeds, the tantalising prospect of finding Lang’s missing work and the mention of a ‘domunculus’. I hazarded that it was a word she had mentioned to me some years before although it sound thoroughly made up.

 

“Made-up, perhaps,” she said, “but it does have a history.”

She fetched a book, Treasures of Yesteryear, from her shelf and opened it to a passage on the Uttoxeter Casket, an Anglo-Saxon reliquary. I do not know if you are familiar with reliquaries. Pak Choi confessed a certain ignorance regarding the word although I would image that authors such as yourselves would have a much larger and refined vocabulary (although on our journey down Pak Choi had noted your over-reliance on certain vulgar terms in your narrative and wondered if you simply resorted to ‘effing and jeffing’ when you could not find the right words to  express yourselves). A reliquary is, as I’m sure you know, a box made to contain religious relics. The illustration in the book was of a very ornate box, beautifully carved from wood. The text below said that medieval witnesses called the box a ‘domunculus’ because of its house-like shape with a gabled roof of sorts for a lid.

 

Just then Bunty’s dog jogged into the room. The jolly chap was a terrier, which I remembered well from years before. Pak Choi smiled broadly, he is very fond of dogs (although not in the same manner as his more carnivorous kin).

Bunty asked me if I had ever heard of the Talbot Hounds. I shook my head. It was a breed that is extinct now, she told me and it was a family emblem for the Earls of Shrewsbury. She went on to explain that legend tells of a cousin of the fifteenth Earl was waited on by a set of fully liveried dogs who staffed his kitchen and served his food. He thought so highly of his Talbot Hounds that he regularly played poker with them. By all accounts they were better at it than he was for he lost his house to them. He was forced to shoot them all to avoid a difficult scene. He spent the rest of his life living with remorse for ending the line of a noble breed. Even now, Alton Towers, which was built by the Earls of Shrewsbury has the dogs as heraldic devices in the grounds. They had an animatronic version called Henry back in the eighties, who would sing country and western songs.

I thought that thoroughly ghastly and shuddered.

Singing dog

Here is Pak Choi’s singing dog

I asked Bunty where I might find this Uttoxeter Casket and was told in reply that it was in Cleveland.

“Over Stockton way?” I said, my heart sinking.

“No, worse than that,” Bunty informed me. “Cleveland, Ohio.”

America! Goodness me!

We departed soon after Bunty’s startling news. It made it hard to know what I should do next. I have after all committed to being present at the launch of your book, Disenchanted, and a trip to the United States could put that (and my bank balance) in jeopardy.

As we passed by the garden gate on the way back to the station, the elderly gardener called me over and pressed a tiny bunch of pansies into my hand. Whilst I was grateful for the gesture, he held onto my hand for rather longer than was necessary, and Pak Choi had to tug me away. Pansies are a favourite of mine, and Pak Choi and I pressed them between the pages of a book later that evening, so that they don’t spoil while we’re away on the next leg of our journey.

Yours,

Dr E. Alexander

Dr Epiphany Alexander’s latest book, “Six Out of Seven Dwarfs aren’t Happy: The Mistreatment of Little People in Fairy Tales” is currently available from Sheffield Academic Press.

Heide Goody and Iain Grant’s novel, Disenchanted, is available now from Amazon.

Epiphany’s Story part 4 – Tuscon

Original blog post here
Heide and Iain’s latest novel, Disenchanted, is out this month. The fairy tale fantasy comedy was written with no small assistance from Dr Epiphany Alexander of Sheffield University’s Department for Folklore and Oral History. As an insight into the research material used to create Disenchanted, we present another of Dr Alexander’s letters to the author duo.

My Dear Friends,

Apologies for the state of this letter and the quality of my handwriting. I am having to write it in peculiar circumstances.

I have surprising news. I am currently in Arizona! This is, as they say, a turn up for the books. Quite apt as I have literally turned up for the book, namely Lang’s Black Fairy Book, his missing thirteenth volume of fairy tales.

When I last wrote to you, I had just heard that the book was perhaps with the domunculus reliquary in Cleveland, Ohio. A few phone calls later and I was speaking to a Professor Raposa of the University of Arizona where the reliquary is on loan. Professor Raposa, I am embarrassed to say, is a fan of my work and both an invitation to visit and plane tickets were soon sent my way! I was naturally thrilled but Pak Choi, my faithful companion, was less pleased. He had heard rumours about the questioning some people are put through at US border control and was worried that the officials might give one of the Fair Folk a tough time. I said he should simply not say anything to annoy them and just keep them happy.

To distract him from worry on the flight, I told him my favourite Arizonan story. It concerns Grey Fox, hero of the Yuman-speaking Native Americans. Giants had come out of the east and from their camp atop a mesa attacked the people of the land, eating those that they could catch. The king rode out to meet the giants and he too was eaten. After that, no one wanted to be king. Grey Fox, who was a reluctant hero at best, knew he had to face the giants. As he walked towards the mesa, he met a horned toad, who offered his help in defeating the giants. He gave Grey Fox his ‘horned helmet’, his ‘horny breastplate’ and his ‘scaly wings’ and told him that he should fight the giants so that the giants had their backs to a cliff edge. Grey Fox went to the mesa and, using the toad’s wings, flew up to meet the giants. They threw spears at him but they broke against his breastplate. They fired arrows at him but they bounced off his helmet. The giants, fearing that Grey Fox was a spirit, dared not take their eyes off him. As the toad had instructed, Grey Fox fought them so they had their backs to the cliff edge so when he leapt at them, they stepped back and fell down to their doom. The last of them to fall reached out and ripped the wings from Grey Fox’s back. Grey Fox returned to the horned toad and gave back the helmet and breastplate. But, seeing that his beautiful wings had been destroyed, the toad was overcome with sadness and anger which is why, to this day, the wingless horned toad cries bitter tears of blood whenever the fox comes near.

toad spitting blood from eyes

Pak Choi’s bizarre drawing of a toad spitting blood from its eyes

The man at the immigration desk had clearly not seen a passport from the Fair Lands before. They are rare after all and composed primarily of pressed leaves and petals. I suspect Pak Choi might have taken my earlier words too literally. He whispered certain words to the man and the man started laughing. He did not stop laughing, even when they had wrestled him from the booth and taken him away on an ambulance stretcher. We hotfooted it out of the airport as quickly as possible.

Professor Raposa was a delightful host who put me up in his Tucson home. Of late, all the men I meet seem to either be suspiciously monobrowed or have some sort of romantic interest in me. It appeared that Professor Raposa was one of the latter. At dinner, with an honesty and charm that British men simply don’t have, Professor Raposa explained that he had first seen me delivering a speech at a symposium in Illinois some years earlier and had ‘taken a shine’ to me. I recall delivering a paper at the event entitled “People in Glass Slippers shouldn’t own Thrones: Why Cinderella would have been a Rubbish Queen” but I had no recollection of meeting the professor.

I rebuffed the professor’s gentle advances and we spent a perfectly pleasant evening over a bowl of chili, a plate of something called cheese crisp and a glass of Sonoita Malvasia, an American wine that was far more pleasant than certain European wine-snobs of my acquaintance might have me believe. The following day, we went to the Arizona State Museum in the grounds of the university and to the domunculus I had come all this way to see.

However, I was distracted by the sight of the infamous Silverbell Road Crosses that the museum also has on display. The crudely cast lead crosses are perhaps evidence of a mythical colony of religious exiles who fled from Rome over twelve hundred years ago and settled in Arizona centuries before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. The badly-formed Latin inscriptions and the carved imagery (including a dinosaur, no less!) offer hints of a marvellous story of great adventure, remarkable encounters in the Arizona desert and possibly even dinosaurs. Or, they all form part of an elaborate hoax, created for unknown reasons by a local Mexican sculptor. If only I had the time to study them further and draw my own conclusions! Pak Choi’s own conclusions are evidenced in this delightful drawing he has rendered.

cowboy on dinosaur

Pak Choi’s drawing of a cowboy riding a diplodocus

Professor Raposa took me to a gallery attended by two young men and there he presented to me, wrapped in a protective sheet, the Uttoxeter Casket. The reliquary was both smaller and more intricately carved than I had imagined. The boxwood carvings show various scenes from the life of Christ, including the nativity and the crucifixion. I told Professor Raposa that it was beautiful but, in all honest truth, I wanted to look within. Professor Raposa obliged and lifted the lid.

Oh, dear friends, did I expect to see Lang’s missing book of fairy tales just sitting there? Did I foolishly think that it had remained hidden for decades because no one had thought to look inside the box? The answer, sadly, is yes. But, naturally, the reliquary box was empty. Well, almost.

At the bottom of the box was a black and white photograph. I inspected it and saw that it was a photograph of a section of medieval manuscript, featuring an image of a fair queen upon her throne.

Professor Raposa was keen for my interpretation of the photograph which had arrived with the box. I was not quick to come to any judgement.  Jumping to hasty conclusions will have people believing in cowboys riding dinosaurs and wotnot. Professor Raposa became unaccountably impatient and then angry and he demanded that I tell him where the Black Fairy Book was. He made a passing remark about ‘the cheese-dangling witch!’ but I was suddenly and acutely distracted by the guns that the gallery attendants now pointed at me. I was struck by two almost instantaneous thoughts: one was that the two gallery attendants had rather thick eyebrows, the other was that it seemed something of a cliché for my current adventure to only feature firearms when I travelled to the United States. Oh well, such is life.

Unable to answer Professor Raposa’s demands for the location of the Black Fairy Book, even at gunpoint, I soon found myself in an unusual position. In short, I am currently writing this from the confines of the boot of what I understand to be a Lincoln Continental (you might have been curious as to why I have been forced to write this letter on end papers torn from your latest novel. It is no reflection of the regard in which I hold your book; it was simply the only paper to hand). It’s not the ideal space in which to write a missive but it could be worse. I will say this for our American friends, they do build cars with plenty of trunk space. I am not sure where the malicious Professor Raposa and his accomplices are taking me but I hope to post this letter to you as soon as I am let out.  

I am deeply conscious that I said I would be at your book event in four days’ time. Be assured I very much intend to be there and to have read your book in full by that time. I am sure all this nasty business will be wrapped up long before then.

Yours,

Dr E. Alexander

Dr Epiphany Alexander’s latest book, “High Ho, High Ho: Drug Use and Prostitution in Fairy Tales” is currently available from Sheffield Academic Press.

Heide Goody and Iain Grant’s novel, Disenchanted, is available now from Amazon.

 

Epiphany’s Story part 5 – Tamworth

Original blog post here
Heide and Iain’s latest novel, Disenchanted, is out this month. The fairy tale fantasy comedy was written with no small assistance from Dr Epiphany Alexander of Sheffield University’s Department for Folklore and Oral History. As an insight into the research material used to create Disenchanted, we present another of Dr Alexander’s letters to the author duo.

My Dear Friends,

When last I wrote to you, I believe I was trapped  in the trunk of a Lincoln Continental in downtown Tucson, Arizona. I found time to reflect upon some of the unusual things that have happened in my  life over recent days, and I was able to draw some useful conclusions. So it was that when Pak Choi suggested that we might slip out via his homeland, I immediately agreed, as I had determined what should be our next course of action.

One should always be wary of spending too much time in Faerie, as it ages the skin terribly, so I had Pak Choi immediately open another portal back into the real world, and this one to the town of Tamworth.

As I am sure you’re aware, Tamworth was the seat of the Saxon rulers of Mercia, and it was for this reason that I needed to visit. The photograph in the domunculus I had seen in Tuscon was unmistakeably a picture of Æthelflæd. Æthelflæd was the daughter of Alfred the Great, and known as the Lady of Mercia. Pak Choi opened a convenient doorway that emerged in the river meadow in the shadow of Tamworth castle.

The castle is built at the confluence of two rivers, the Tame and the Anker, and this important junction is the subject of a local fairy tale, known as The Mermaid and the Mother. A local boy, Tom, liked to spend time by the river, although his mother warned him to be careful of mermaids. Tom was confident that he would not be tricked by the notoriously sly mermaids, and continued  to pass his days on the pleasant grassy banks. When a swan engaged him in conversation he was not afraid, and even took the swan home to meet his mother. It turned out that the swan was a mermaid, and by inviting her over the threshold of his home, Tom was now betrothed to her. Tom didn’t mind the prospect of spending the rest of his life swimming in the river with this fascinating creature, but his mother was determined to prevent the marriage so she heated up the oven, preparing to roast the swan. The cunning mermaid passed word of this to the town’s magistrate, who was naturally obliged to protect the royal bird and so threw the mother in jail, and presided over the nuptials in her absence.

woman cooking swan

Here is a picture of the mother preparing to cook the swan

Pak Choi and I enjoyed the brief and pleasant walk up into the town, passing by the Assembly Rooms, which bears Tamworth’s unofficial coat of arms. This features a pair of mermaids, popularly supposed to be Tom and his bride.

I wanted to visit the library, where I believed there was an archive of the local newspapers. The late Mabel Swift had a popular history column in this for many years, and it was her work that I wished to review, as I had heard that she had a great deal of expertise regarding the life of Æthelflæd and I needed to find out what link there might be with Andrew Lang’s Black Fairy Book. In the library, a bespectacled assistant called Ernest offered to copy all of the relevant material for me, and suggested that I should enjoy a walk around the shady pathways between the library and St Editha’s church while I waited. Pak Choi and I enjoyed this very much, as there are lots of cheeky squirrels who seem unafraid of people and so Pak Choi was able to have a hearty gossip with them without attracting too much attention. He passed on a bawdy tale of squirrel-based derring-do which I will relate here for your amusement, as I know that your book Disenchanted touches on some rather base elements.

A squirrel called Ewan declared himself king of the nuts, by virtue of the fact that nobody else had thought to do it first. He had a throne constructed of nuts and made all of his subjects bring him nut-based tributes. He was an unpopular ruler as nobody could ever see any benefit to his reign, only the burden of supplying nuts for his insatiable appetite.

It became known that he needed so many nuts to sustain his lovemaking, as he liked to visit whatever passes for a red light district in squirrel terms (I’m afraid that Pak Choi’s excessive mirth made this point a little unclear to me). Ewan’s subjects decided that they could cure these urges with the use of a classic honey trap. They recruited a delightfully pretty girl squirrel. Pak Choi used the term hotsy totsy. I honestly don’t know where he gets it from, I think these squirrels are a bad influence. The attractive squirrel was charged with engaging the squirrel king in energetic lovemaking, but whenever he reached for a nut (as he would do throughout) she would bite him vigorously. You might think that this tale ends with Ewan’s re-education, perhaps renouncing his reign over the nuts, but you’d be wrong. It actually ends with him contracting tetanus and dying, which had Pak Choi and his bushy-tailed friends falling about and hooting with laughter.

squirrel king of the nuts

Here is a picture of the King of the Nuts

There is an interesting anchor-themed sculpture near the church. It is a memorial to Colin Grazier, one the three British seaman who retrieved secret documents from a sinking German submarine in World War Two. The Enigma code books were amongst those documents, enabling those clever people over at Bletchley Park to understand the Germans’ encrypted messages. Sadly, young Colin, a local lad, drowned when the sub went down.

Colin Grazier memorial

Here is Pak Choi’s sketch of the sculpture

I had my own mystery to solve and codes to break and felt inspired by Colin’s example as I went back into the library to see what Ernest had found for me. The librarian had uncovered and photocopied a wealth of local history material for me. 

Ernest looked at me intently and enquired if I would like to join him for a drink of locally brewed real ale, over which he could tell me some more about the local area. Lovely though the little man was, I can’t abide real ale. I dismissed his advances with brief thanks and made a sharp exit. I had much to think about. I was not in need of ale but of some quiet thinking time and a cup of Pak Choi’s soothing tea.

I post this to you in the knowledge that I have promised to meet you in Birmingham tomorrow to help celebrate the launch of your new book. I see no reason at all why I can’t get to the bottom of this mystery and then come meet with you, dear friends.

Yours,

Dr E. Alexander

Dr Epiphany Alexander’s latest book, “One Day My Prints Will Come: How Early Printers Hindered the Spread of Fairy Tales” is currently available from Sheffield Academic Press.

Heide Goody and Iain Grant’s novel, Disenchanted, is available now from Amazon.

Epiphany’s Story part 6 – Birmingham

Heide and Iain’s latest novel, Disenchanted, is out this month. The fairy tale fantasy comedy was written with no small assistance from Dr Epiphany Alexander of Sheffield University’s Department for Folklore and Oral History. As an insight into the research material used to create Disenchanted, we present another of Dr Alexander’s letters to the author duo.

My Dear Friends,

I can explain everything, as I am sure you have questions. We set off for Birmingham this morning in high spirits and good hope that we might be able to conclude our own business before joining you this evening in the Prince of Wales pub to celebrate the launch of your latest book, Disenchanted. Our personal quest, to find Andrew Lang’s missing volume of fairy tale stories had, as you know, taken us far and wide and now we had come to Birmingham, hoping to find it in the company of a medieval illuminated manuscript called The Cartulary of Wroxall Abbey, featuring an image of Æthelflæd, Queen of the Mercians. We were being closely pursued by some mysterious foxy gentlemen with unruly eyebrows, but more on them later.

In Tamworth, I found a mention in one of Mabel Swift’s newspaper columns of her seeing the illuminated manuscript in the Shakespeare Memorial Room of Birmingham Central Library on Edmund Street. Pak Choi, my faithful servant and companion, made a number of childish noises at the mention of Shakespeare. He has made it clear to me before that he and the other Fair Folk have a somewhat low opinion of Mr William Shakespeare and his depiction of fairies.

As we walked from Birmingham New Street station up to Edmund Street, Pak Choi recounted to me the fairy tale of Puck and the Horrific Machine. To be honest, fairies just call them ‘tales’ or, when they are feeling less charitable ‘tales of our dealings with the stupid humans’. I suspect Pak Choi makes most of it up but it is set in Birmingham and so worth recounting. He began the tale by recounting how Robin Goodfellow, the puckish fairy, often visits the homes of slovenly women and pinches them black and blue as punishment for their poor housekeeping and laziness (Puck is something of an unreconstructed chauvinist, you may note). One woman, living in the Highgate area of the then town of Birmingham, drew Robin Goodfellow’s ire. Not only did she refuse to keep her house clean but she also locked her front and back doors at night (fairy folk require that all doors are kept unlocked so that human homes do not impede their night-time flights). But Robin Goodfellow was never one to give in and resolutely broke in each night to pinch and poke and prod the slatternly housewife. The woman, one Mrs Griffiths, might not have been house-proud but she was intelligent, belligerent and would make use of all available tools on hand to fight her cause. The tool, in this instance, was her husband. She told Mr Griffiths to build an electric machine with which to fight off the fairy. Mr Griffiths’ invention was primarily composed of iron (which fairies hate) and had a great sucking nozzle with which to unnerve and dismount flying fairies. So armed, Mrs Griffiths lay in wait and, indeed, Robin Goodfellow made his appearance that night. Mrs Griffiths chased the puckish one upstairs and down, rattling her nozzle up curtains, under furniture and along the coving. Of course, she had no hope of catching the light-footed Puck (who could put a girdle around the world in forty minutes, as you know) but it was perhaps pleasing and certainly profitable when she realised that her husband had invented the world’s first domestic vacuum cleaner.

woman with vacuum cleaner

Here is a picture of Mrs Griffiths with her vacuum cleaner

We reached Edmund Street and found a museum and some council offices but no sign of any library. After walking up and down for some minutes, we asked one of the local residents (they do have a peculiar accent, don’t they?) about the library. The old gent was keen to tell us that the library that had stood there had been demolished in the 1970s. I was most saddened to hear this. But our friendly local was keen to point out that the Shakespeare Room had been dismantled brick by brick and panel by panel and reconstructed within the new Central Library. I eagerly asked him to direct us to it and he pointed to a demolition site not fifty yards away. My heart sank.

“Of course,” the old gent told me, “they moved it out of there into the new new Library of Birmingham.”

Well, off we set, in search of this mysterious wandering room. Within in minutes were in the new shiny glass and gold library and taking the lift to the ninth floor where, as the man had promised, there was an original Victorian room (albeit constructed in the Elizabethan style) with birds and flowers and such produced in world-class marquetry. In a locked display case, we saw The Cartulary of Wroxall Abbey! Fortunately, Pak Choi is not only a fine chef, a gifted masseur and a self-proclaimed “Third Dan in Sushi” but he’s also a dab hand with locks. Faster than you can say Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo, the case was open, the book was out and there, in a hollow that had been savagely cut into the aged parchment, was a fat leather-bound notebook.

With trembling hands – oh, they were trembling, dear friends – I opened the notebook and saw the confident if not entirely neat signature of one ‘A. Lang’ on the first page. Dear friends, I hope that you can appreciate the unalloyed joy I felt at holding a previously unseen volume from one of our island’s greatest collectors of fairy tales and folklore.

Giddy as schoolchildren, we hightailed it out of the library and took our find to the Wellington pub to toast our success and pore over the tales within the book. I must confess, I imbibed more than a couple of glasses of red while voraciously reading such delights as Old Scratch comes to Stay, The Princess who would not be Married and The Three Witches of the Fen. One story especially caught my eye.

The Queen and the Foxes is a tale of a great English queen (Æthelflæd perhaps?) who came to the aid of the land when it was under attack from demonic foxes from across the sea (an allegory for the Danish Vikings, maybe). Many men had met them in combat but the foxes were too strong and quick. The queen defeated them instead in a battle of wits. She invited them into the courtyard of her castle with the promise of a feast. They came at night, slinking in like silent shadows, licking their sharp teeth hungrily. They demanded the food that had been promised and the queen said they would dine on the largest cheese in the world. “Where is it?” the foxes demanded and the queen pointed into the well in the middle of the courtyard. The foxes looked in and saw a big round cheese as big as the world. Without a second thought, the demonic beasts leapt in one after the other into the well. Of course, the ‘cheese’ was nothing but a reflection of the full moon but the hungry foxes were easily fooled. When they all landed in the well, rolling over each other in their furry thousands, snapping and biting at one another, the foxes understood they had been tricked and vowed vengeance against the queen and the people of the land. But the queen bound them in the well with an enchantment (a couplet in Old English that appeared in the book but which I will not repeat here). And so the land was saved.

Here is a picture of the foxes in the well

Pak Choi and I enjoyed another drink (maybe two) before realising we were in danger of being late for your book launch party. We staggered aboard a number 50 bus and demanded that the driver take us to the Prince of Wales pub. We were, I should say in our defence, very nearly on time.

Soon enough, we stepped off the bus in the suburb of Moseley and looked around for the pub. What we did see was a number of hairy men casually approaching us. Perhaps it was the influence of the wine but I could see clearly now that these fellows, with their thick eyebrows, long tongues and – yes! – bushy tails swinging between their legs were foxes, plain and simple.

“Give us the book,” they said in silky voices, “or we will tear you limb from limb.”

“So that you can use the enchantment to free your foxy friends and take over the land once more?” I demanded loudly. I’m not usually so loud and commanding but six or seven glasses of Merlot does something to a lady.

The foxes merely shrugged, which was impressive because I didn’t think foxes had shoulders.

“Never,” I said and reached into Pak Choi’s pocket. My fairy friend is a pipe man and frequently enjoys a puff on Youngman’s Long-Drawn Shag and therefore always has matches on his person. I took a book from my bag and, quick as I could, put flame to the paper. The foxes howled in anguish at seeing their chance for vengeance gone for good. As they ran off, screaming miserably, I shouted victoriously after them, “Away filth! Begone with you! Good riddance to bad rubbish!”

And that, my dear friends, is the reason why, when you stepped out of the pub you happened to find me, drunkenly burning a copy of your book on the pavement and declaring “Away filth!” and such. I’m sure you can see that my version of events is entirely believable and satisfactory now that I have explained it to you.

You did mention in your rather terse text message that I was clearly alone but I should point out that the foxes had gone by the time you appeared and that my fairy friend isn’t always visible to mortal folk. Yes, it is true that I deceived the fox-men by burning your novel rather than Lang’s priceless notebook but I am confident that you will see the wisdom of my actions.

Anyway, now that is cleared up, I hope that you will not mention this little matter to the Vice Chancellor of my university and that we can remain, as always, the dearest of friends.

Yours,

Dr E. Alexander

Dr Epiphany Alexander’s latest book, “Cobblers! : The Dubious Origins of the Tale of the Elves and the Shoemaker.” is currently available from Sheffield Academic Press.

Heide Goody and Iain Grant’s novel, Disenchanted, is available now from Amazon.

Posted in 2017, Books Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,

Stokercon Diary: California Screaming

A trip to the US

Heide went to Stokercon for two reasons.

  • She wanted to meet people from the US genre scene. Writerly chit-chat with a new set of people is always great
  • It was onboard the Queen Mary.

The Queen Mary is permanently moored in Long Beach California, so a long way from home, but what a trip!
Iain wasn’t able to make this trip. Heide went with her husband, Simon.
Here’s Heide’s Stokercon diary:
Queen Mary, Long Beach

Tuesday 25th April

Arrived at Long Beach in the afternoon, but it was hard work staying awake until the evening as we’d been up for many hours already. Had a walk around the ship and went for a meal. The bay seems to come alive with birds at dusk. Watching pelicans fish is particularly spectacular (the bird in the picture is a heron).

Heron flying past Queen Mary

Wednesday 26th April

We met up with Will (a proof reader and long distance friend) for brunch. He’s local and he’d booked us in to a nice place called Plunge a short taxi ride away from the Queen Mary, but within sight, across the bay, as so many things seem to be. This restaurant is so cool that it has no frontage onto the street, it’s in an apartment block. You just have to know it’s there.
I’m not sure how Will knew who I was when we arrived, but he might have been tipped off by my performance in the lift (elevator). The receptionist told me that the restaurant was on level 2 so the lift dinged on 2 and then we walked out. We were clearly only one floor up from the ground so we got back in and repeated the performance. It took some time before realisation dawned that the ground floor counts as a number in the US.
Will was such fun to talk to that after brunch we went for an extended walk with him, chatting as we went. The path up the side of Long Beach runs for a long way so we didn’t run out of subject matter or places to walk. Eventually Will summoned a taxi and dropped us back at the Queen Mary on his way back to Santa Monica. One of the things that he told us about is the local fish called the Grunion. These apparently have an annual habit of coming up the beach to mate, and there’s quite a spectacle when it happens. He emailed afterwards to tip us off that that this week is good for the Grunion Run, as it’s known.
I’ve only been here a day and already I am hamming up my English accent. A couple asked if I would take their picture. They commented on my “foreign accent” and patted my hair, saying it was an awesome cut, like Pat Benatar.
Planned a quiet drink and early night but spotted some people in the bar that looked like horror writers. I went and said hello and they turned out to be the early birds who were organizing. Kate Jonez, Johnny Worthen and Lauren Candia amongst others. Got roped into a couple of hours stuffing goody bags and sorting name badges, which was a great way to meet people.

Thursday 27th April

After breakfast, we went back to help with some more of the organising: name badges, moving signs around etc. I was curious to find that Simon didn’t have a name badge, so I checked the booking that I’d made. I was horrified to see that I had never booked him into the con. I threw myself upon Kate’s mercy, and she sorted it out. We both now have volunteer ribbons.
The dealers all turned up. The dealers’ room is sited on the promenade deck, which is a vast airy corridor linking most of the con’s rooms. Feeling the pressure of my new volunteer status, I asked Mary Elizabeth of Mysterious Galaxy if she’d like some help setting up. Many authors and publishers have sent their books to Mysterious Galaxy to sell on their behalf, so they had an enormous run of tables, with piles of boxed-up books organised (and shipped) in alphabetised ranges. It took several hours to get all of the books out of the boxes and onto the tables, but it’s an impressive sight.
Mysterious Galaxy bookstore at Stokercon
PS Publishing from the UK had sent a whole load of books and when Peter Crowther stopped by to see that they had arrived safely he was perplexed by my accent and wondered which state I was from, assuming I was part of Mysterious Galaxy.
Lunch was provided for volunteers, which was great as all the food and drink (both on and off the Queen Mary) is eye-wateringly expensive.
A bit more goody-bag packing featured. It never seems to end – there are still more to be done. I slipped a few cards into some of them with details of my reading, which is tomorrow. If I’d realised I’d be doing this job I would have come armed with five hundred.
The day was punctuated by loud announcements that could be heard all over the Queen Mary. They were being made from a nearby cruise ship which had appeared in the morning, and which left in the evening. The tannoy (public address system) was used to bellow instructions, hints, tips and adverts to the cruise ship passengers (and the rest of Long Beach) all day long.
Bumped into Marie O’Regan and Paul Kane. They had made a long journey from the UK like we had, but they were a day later, so were still catching up with the time zone difference. They’d got a plug adapter for the US but it turned out to be the wrong way round (i.e. for US visitors to the UK) and so they were on the hunt for a new adapter.
The readings had started in the Wedding Chapel, and we went to see F Paul Wilson accompanied by Kerri Leigh Grady and Jeff Strand accompanied by Christopher Clark. All of the stories were excellent and everyone stuck to the thirty minute slots with remarkable accuracy.
After getting something to eat there was the opening party. If I’d stayed awake until later, there was a stunt team, Decayed Brigade, doing a display, but their make-up and entertaining jump-scares were all that I saw of them. Decayed Brigade
I chatted with Keri Kelley and Barbara Barnett whose book Apothecary’s Curse is nominated for a Stoker Award and features heavily in the goody bag and on the book stall. Lee Murray with her husband David introduced me to the term “sponsor”. It’s her way of introducing David, who is neither a reader nor a writer. They introduced me to Hank Schwaeble and Rhodi Hawk.
Spent a few minutes talking to Jeffrey Burton whose first stop in Los Angeles was the emergency room after his wife sliced open her thumb on the air sickness bag on the plane.

Friday 28th April

Attended a panel on marketing your work and getting paid as a writer, which seemed like 2 separate topics, but they were tackled jointly by a group of people from Blumhouse, a media company. The chair was Rebekah McKendry and the other panelists were people who worked in various forms for Blumhouse. They discussed the agile approach to writing that they had all employed in order to become full-time paid writers. They tied this in with marketing; that everything you write must be pushed out somehow, so that they it contributes to your brand and presence.
Got embroiled with a group of people who had decided to go to a workshop on giving a great interview, which sounded very interesting but I didn’t realise until part way through that it was on for two hours, so I had to slip away or I would have missed my own reading. I must apologise to Nicole Cushing, who was running the workshop, if I see her.
I went to the reading room early so that I could hear Lee Murray’s reading. She was accompanied by Delphine Boswell. On the way to the reading I found Will, who was there for the day so that he could hear my reading.
There were 20-25 people in the reading that I did (Erinn Kemper was my reading buddy). Jeff Strand came to see us, which was great as he is a busy man. Got a good number of laughs for Clovenhoof and the Spiders. I had a couple of Terry’s Chocolate Oranges and raffled them at the end. Lee Murray won them.
We walked around the deck briefly with Will and went to the bar for a while to relax with a drink and some snacks. He told us that the wind that was picking up was likely to turn into a Santa Ana, which is famous for unsettling people. I found that I was definitely unsettled when I noticed that the water bottles that kept turning up in our room were chargeable. This fact is written in white lettering on a pale pink background, almost invisible. I’ve already drunk my way through a small fortune!

water bottle
We met Jeffrey Burton again, with his wife Cindy this time. She appeared to have recovered from her thumb trauma. They recommended a place to eat, so we went round to the Yard House in Shoreline Village. By the time we got back to the Queen Mary the scheduled events had finished so we did some ninja-like sign swapping in preparation for Saturday’s events and went to bed, tired.

Saturday 29th April

Went to the registration desk to see if they wanted any help during the day. Got some crowd control jobs to do around George RR Martin’s events which were open to the public if they bought a special ticket. 
Met Lee Murray on the stairs. It turns out that we both know Chris Barnes, audiobook narrator extraordinaire. I told her that although Chris hasn’t yet narrated any of our novels he recorded the story that I read yesterday, Clovenhoof and the Spiders.
Went to a “pitch clinic” unsure what it was, exactly. It turned out to be literary agent Katharine Sands of NY agency Sarah Jayne Freymann talking about how to pitch to an agent, and promising to work with some “victims” to hone their pitches. A couple of the many key points that she made were:

  • Never lie, but keep to the high points. Complications in your situation or any kind of “backstory” can come later. The pitch is like a first date compared to marriage (you don’t talk about retiring together on a first date)
  • It’s important to think of a pitch as “sharing” rather than “selling”

She was incredibly generous with her time and knowledge. After the session six of us went into a side room to continue the discussion and she remained there for about 90 minutes, making sure that everyone had their questions answered and their pitches dissected.
Went to some readings. Johnny Worthen and Nathan Carson. Walking back from there Jeff Strand stopped me and said how much he enjoyed the reading that I did yesterday.
The crowd for George RR Martin turned out to be well-behaved so when the queue had died down I made sure that I got a picture of him with the infamous Baby.
George RR Martin with sinister baby
I got a picture of Stephen Jones with Baby as well.
Stephen Jones with creepy baby
I loitered outside the pitching sessions, and Mercedes Yardley of Gamut magazine had a sudden opening. I’d met Mercedes briefly before. I went in to ask whether Gamut might be interested in a 5k comedy piece that Iain and I have just written. I didn’t so much pitch it as re-tell it, but she was patient enough to sit through my rambling before telling me that Gamut don’t really do comedy, but she suggested a couple of other avenues that I might look at.
We went to the banquet and watched the Stoker Awards with Jeff Strand as Master of Ceremonies. Jeff pointed out that the Queen’s Salon, where we were sitting, featured in the Poseidon Adventure, and had us all pose for a picture as if we were on a sinking ship. 

Sunday 30th April

My Stokercon diary ends here. A morning of saying goodbye to new friends and wondering whether I can get to Stokercon 2018 in Providence.
 

Posted in 2017, Events Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,