STORY TELLING – THE ANCIENT ART

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There are many theories as to when story-telling actually began.  In the old Arabian legends, Scheherazade was allowed to live for the following day if she told an entertaining story that night.  Which is singing for your supper with a vengeance.

Our prehistoric ancestors spun tales about what might lie in the darkness beyond their cave fires. They were a bit restricted, of course, not having pens or paper or ink, and probably limited when it came to actual speech, as well, but they could paint their stories with considerable clarity and drama, as innumerable cave paintings prove. They probably didn’t go a huge bundle on chick-lit – describing a candle-lit dinner wouldn’t have met with much credibility when most people were living in hollowed-out rocks, and hoarding their fire-making equipment to keep prowling predators at bay – but they would have been able to tell many a gripping yarn when it came to chase sequences.  ‘And the dinosaur ran for its life, with the entire clan chasing it…’

When James Frazer was collecting material for the Golden Bough, he was very generous with the giving out of fire-water to the various tribes he talked to.  And the tribes, liking the fire-water – as who would not? – apparently used to go away and think up tales to tell him, to get more of the stuff.  Which begs the question as to how far a legend can be trusted.

There’s also the existence of the quest, a plot structure found almost everywhere on earth from the earliest recorded times. It’s a universally-known theme:  a character leaves the safety of his home, and whether he’s searching for the Holy Grail, a Golden Fleece, or the ‘One Ring that rules them all,’ he has to endure a dangerous journey into forbidden territories (allowing the narrator to conjure up marvellous and often fantastical settings), and usually defeat a few enemies along the way.  Often there’s a period of extreme hardship to be endured as Sir Gareth found in the Knights of the Round Table saga, when he was made to work as what Thomas Malory calls a ‘lowly kitchen boy’ in Camelot, before achieving recognition, honour, and – of course –  winning the lady of the castle.

A similar period of adversity is accorded to the heroine best known as Cinderella – a story which apparently pre-dates Grimm and Disney by almost a thousand years, and seems to have made its first appearance in a Chinese book written around 850 A.D.  In that version, Cinderella is called Yeh-hsien, and her ball gown is a cloak of kingfisher feathers, although the shoe motif remains, with gold shoes replacing the glass slippers – which glitter-shoesprobably proves that a girl in any era will suffer a good deal to get a decent pair of shoes, and may go some way to explaining the shocking cost of today’s Christian Louboutins.

In 1930 with television still in its infancy, there was widespread horror at a project to dramatise a novella for TV.  The title was The Man with a Flower in His Mouth, and it was prophesied that the experiment would herald the end of the book – that the country would subside into a cultural wilderness and authors would become an endangered species.

It didn’t happen.  Nowadays, authors and publishers will do anything to secure a TV deal for a book.  As for digital publishing – according to some authorities, the success of that took the publishing world somewhat by surprise.

The art of story-telling goes on.  It adapts and, as an art, it’s a survivor.

The people who spin the stories adapt as well.  They, too, are survivors.

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THE RETURN OF THE WOLFKING

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I wrote a quartet of fantasy books set in ancient Ireland and starring a charismatic, slightly-dangerous, and not entirely human creature…  Cormac mac Airt was inspired by a medieval King of Ireland of the same name, and I loved creating him. The books have been out of print for many years, but early in 2016 I was approached with a proposal to digitally re-issue them. And so, 20 years after I spun him out of Celtic myth and legend, I’m delighted that the Wolfking is returning…

 WolfkingThe genesis for the Wolfking series came from two sources.  The first was a song that was part of my school tradition.  It’s an early nineteenth century poem by Thomas Moore, set to an old traditional air:                                                                     The harp that once through Tara’s halls       The soul of music shed,                              Now hangs as mute on Tara‘s walls              As if that soul were fled.’

Even today, the words conjure up end of term concerts, with rows of beaming parents.  But beyond all that, the idea of Tara itself brought a marvellous tumble of images: purple forests and the misty mountains of Erin, and the dazzling halls of the Court.

In creating Cormac I drew on a very different childhood memory.  A fear of wolves. One dark, rainy afternoon, I found an old book containing that most famous of all children’s stories, Little Red Riding Hood.  The pages were dry and foxed, and the illustrations (probably they were by Gustave Doré), were the stuff of nightmares.  But I read the story over and over again with a kind of helpless compulsion.

But years later, drawing on those fears to write the Wolfking quartet, I discovered that wolves could be tamed.

Something else I discovered during the writing of those books, is what fun it is to write fantasy – also how different the process is from setting a book in the real world.  For instance:-

FOOD

The preparing and eating of meals might initially seem to be a problem in fantasy. You can’t send your characters out for a pub lunch or to the Italian trattoria on the corner.  Nor can they phone for a pizza delivery, to scoff with a bottle of vino in front of a DVD.  On the other hand, you can create marvellous banquets with all kinds of strange dining customs, and characters can feast off exotic dishes, long since forgotten.

ROMANCE

Writing about romance (to give it its polite term) in the real world might call for a candlelit dinner, soft music on the stereo and silk sheets in the bedroom.  Or, if you’re reaching the maximum word-count and your hero and heroine tend to be brisk about such things, you revert to the Italian trattoria and plenty of Chianti.  In fantasy you might not get the silk sheets, but you can have a bedchamber strewn with rose petals, and the soft music can be supplied by a fantasy version of a Palm Court orchestra.  (If you’re a ruler in fantasy land you can order pretty much what you want on these occasions, as the Wolfkings usually did).

PLOT SNAGS

 In fantasy you can often cut your way out of these by creating a spell – newly-woven or disinterred from a cobwebbed crypt, or possibly stolen from a rival sorcerer.  This last is good, because it allows you to start a sub-plot, in which a few characters can be sent on a quest, braving assorted dangers along the way.

HEALTH AND SAFETY

 There’s no NHS in fantasy, of course, or private medical schemes.  But if a character has over-indulged at one of the lush banquets, or, more likely, has a sword-wound from a battle, you can have a great time creating an eccentric druid or a wandering bard with a useful store of medical knowledge and a cartload of potions.

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT

CourtBoth have to exist in fantasy, but the crimes can be pleasingly exotic.  They might range from the pilfering of a spell to the usurping of a throne.                             The punishments are exotic, as well.  It isn’t a question of turning up at Court No 3 and being sentenced to two years in the nick, or even an afternoon in the stocks.  In fantasy, people can be exiled from kingdoms.  They can be turned to stone or drowned in lakes of blood. They can be sacrificed in a ritual specially written for the occasion.  Often, they can be dramatically killed in a battle.  This allows the author to write a lively chapter, brimful of heroism, with the air ringing with Henry V-type rallying cries – after which everybody can have a splendidly Bacchanalian banquet by way of celebration.

As for the overall structure of the books, I wanted to tie those ancient forests and that lost Irish grandeur into the future.  To create a bridge to that long-ago world – but a bridge that would not start in the present, with its too-easily-recognisable technology, but that would be far in the future…  In a world where technology was an almost forgotten word – where things such as television, telephones, cars, electricity, were only legends.  A world destroyed and laid waste by a catastrophe so massive it had torn open a chink in Time’s fabric…  A chink through which someone from that future world might fall, to find herself in the Wolfking’s enchanted lair on the very edge of the dazzling halls of Tara’s Court…

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Wolfking-Book-1-Sarah-Rayne-ebook/dp/B01ENC94JI?ie=UTF8&keywords=Sarah%20Rayne&qid=1461328340&ref_=sr_1_2&s=digital-text&sr=1-2

 

DROWNING IN THE PLOT

 

bell-tower-copyQuite near to where I live is a beautiful and mostly unspoilt village which is chockful of history.  It’s home to the 1,000-year-old Horn Dance, whose performers still caper through the village with enthusiastic glee once a year; it’s mentioned in the Domesday Book, Henry VIII dissolved its monastery and Dick Turpin stabled his horse at the local inn.  On the outskirts is a massive reservoir, and there’s a wonderfully eerie legend that tells how the reservoir’s creation drowned a number of buildings.  At times, the legend expands to describe how an actual hamlet, if not an entire village, lies at the bottom of the reservoir.

AtlantisLegends about drowned cities and drowned worlds are deeply woven into the folklore of the human race, of course.  There’s Atlantis which might not have existed at all, or which might still lie ‘full fathoms five’ in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. There’s Lough Neagh in Ireland, immortalised in a ballad of 1852, called Let Erin Remember.  And there’s the ancient port of Herakleion, near Alexandria, dating to around 500 BC, and discovered as recently as 2000.  Incredibly, a slab of black granite was found in the watery ruins, inscribed with a tax edict signed by the Pharaoh Nectanebo.  Possibly proving that the Inland Revenue is a much older organisation than anyone realised.

Brittany’s myth of the drowned City of Ys is a particularly vivid one.  The city’s bells are said to be still heard chiming at times, which must be annoying for anyone in the vicinity trying to watch TV.  The Ys princess, Dahot, who had devoted her time to organising orgies and had the worrying habit of systematically killing her lovers next morning, managed to cheat the gods when they destroyed the city. She transformed herself into a mermaid, and took to materialising with languid grace on a rock to lure fishermen to their doom.  Considered as an escape ploy it’s an enterprising idea, although as a seduction technique it might have been a tad unreliable particularly in Winter.  In later centuries, the 1824 poem, Die Lorelei, has a golden-haired heroine also seated on a cliff, this time above the Rhine, eternally combing her hair and distracting sailors who crashed their ships on the Lorelei Rock – which is sometimes translated as the Murmuring Rock.

For a long time I wanted to use this concept of a drowned town or village in a book.  The trouble was that a great many writers had had the same idea.  Among them, are:-                                                                Reginald Hill, with On Beulah Height.                                                           Peter Robinson, writing In a Dry Season.                                                   Dennis Wheatley, whose famous best-seller, They Found Atlantis, uses not just a drowned village, but an entire civilization.                            And in the Idylls of the King, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, has Arthur and Mordred fighting their last battle near the drowned city of Lyonesse, off Cornwall’s coast.  Lyonesse apparently had the disconcerting trick of surfacing above the waves when nobody was expecting it.  To see an entire city suddenly rear up from the depths of the English Channel must have been alarming, although Alfred puts it rather more elegantly:                                                                                                               “A land of old upheaven from the abyss
By fire, to sink into the abyss again;
Where fragments of forgotten peoples dwelt,
And the long mountains ended in a coast
Of ever-shifting sand, and far away
The phantom circle of a moaning sea.”

So, to base a book on a drowned village was clearly to tread an already well-trodden path – a path so frequently used, in fact, that it had assumed the importance of an actual genre and had taken unto itself a name – reservoir noir­.

But how about using a single building, ruined and desolate, doomed to be submerged by the sea at high tide every day…?  An old bell tower, perhaps, Bell Tower 2on the edge of the English coast.  A tower that would jut up from its shelf of rock like a decaying black stump, and – drawing on the Lys and Lorelei legend – a tower that would have a carved stone figure on the seaward side.  A figure that would be completely immersed at high tide, its blind stone eyes staring into the under-sea world for hours.  At this point, I found the painting shown here on the left, and it was propped up on my desk during the writing of the book.  It’s the work of a 19th century American artist called Thomas Cole and it acted as a terrific visual inspiration.

As for the other inspiration…

When I was about eleven years old, a particular film was shown on television.  It was a rainy Saturday afternoon and there was nothing much to do, but the Radio Times was advertising an old film from the 1940s.  (Those were the mystical days when there was only one TV channel).  I thought, vaguely, that it would be utterly boring, with people talking in impossibly clipped accents and ladies with corrugated hair.  But I curled up in a chair to watch it anyway.  (There may have been tea and toasted crumpets with butter halfway through viewing, which would have added to the cosy eeriness).  The film absolutely enchanted and mesmerised me.  It was never televised again, but I never forgot it.  Some people will know this film as The Dream of Olwen – it was also titled While I Live.  It’s based Olwen 3on a play called This Same Garden by Robert Bell, and the plot centres on a girl coming into a clifftop house, not knowing who or what she is, sitting down at the piano and playing an unpublished piece of music that was written twenty years earlier, by a girl long since dead.  For me that film ticked all the boxes – eerie music, secrets from the past, and, of course, a faint whiff of the supernatural.  Working out the plot for the book that was to become The Bell Tower, that long-ago rainy afternoon came back to me vividly.  Music – specifically a lost, sinister  piece of music – and a wild clifftop setting.

Then, researching for something quite different, I discovered, by chance, by serendipity, by divine (or even demonic) providence, an ancient lament.  A death song. It’s the eerie and hauntingly beautiful The Unquiet Grave, sometimes known as How Cold the Wind Doth Blow.  It’s believed to date to around 1400, but, incredibly, it can still be heard today.  It’s been recorded by many contemporary musicians and singers including Joan Baez, the Dubliners and Steeleye Span.  A plethora of folk musicians have sung it, assorted progressive and alternative rock groups have given it their own upbeat and quirky twist, and at the other end of the scale several arrangements have been made by the great romantic composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams.  I based Thaisa’s Song, which is at heart of my book, on that ancient song.

The village in The Bell Tower is called Rede Abbas. It’s fictional, but its counterpart can be found in many places along the wild and beautiful stretch of England’s southern rim known as the Jurassic Coast.

The ancient bell tower of the title is, on the other hand, entirely a creation of my own imagination.   At least, I hope it is…

FINAL NOTE:  The film, While I Live, was released on DVD two or three years ago.  I’ve watched it several times now, and it still works the magic for me.  (Corrugated hair and cut-glass accents notwithstanding)I’m hugely grateful to that film and to whoever wrote The Unquiet Grave for providing me with the plot for The Bell Tower. I find it sad that the name of that song’s original composer has been lost, because I would like to have given credit to someone for that marvellous inspiration – no matter how long ago he – or she – lived.

Of the many recordings available via YouTube etc, this one, by Luke Kelly seems to me to come closest to conveying the raw emotion of the lyrics.  So for anyone who would like to hear it, here’s the link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pfgwxn95U6g

And for anyone who might like to read The Bell Tower, here are the Amazon links:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Bell-Tower-Haunted-Mystery/dp/0727885596/ref=pd_rhf_gw_p_img_1?ie=UTF8&refRID=13XHBZN2MKWNJCAN6ZVA

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0727885596/ref=s9_simh_gw_p14_d0_i1?pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_s=desktop-1&pf_rd_r=1VK9Y0WXBNGYQBEEKZ6S&pf_rd_t=36701&pf_rd_p=2079475242&pf_rd_i=desktop

 

THE BIRTH OF A SERIES

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The haunted house series, featuring Michael Flint and Nell West, was born several yearsahh-2 ago, when I was asked to write and present a ghost-story evening at a local historic house.  There were so many legends attached to the place it was almost a question of auditioning the resident spooks to decide which to use. (‘No, sorry, we can’t have a headless horseman because of Health & Safety regulations…’ ‘Chain rattling is fine, though, providing you keep the noise down…’)

Tales ranged from spectral footsteps to an old lady in a rocking chair, and the amiable figure of a shopkeeper, apparently waiting to serve customers with a variety of goods. In the psychedelic 1960s a séance was held in the house, but the findings were ambiguous. (Reports of a cavalier appearing during the séance were never considered reliable, largely because he apparently winked at one of the female ghost-hunters.)  I took two or three of these tales, stirred in a couple of my own, and presented the result as a series of diaries ‘found’ during renovations of the house. Spooky music, operated from a portable stereo behind a curtain, lent a touch of eeriness.

Since then I’ve repeated the performance in various venues. A marvellous Victorian theatre redolent of gaslight and Henry Irving… A delightful old bookshop, where Pepys might have browsed…

We do not need to dwell on the night the stereo jumped forward to a recording of The Archers that had been inadvertently left on it.  It was unfortunate, though, that instead of spectral midnight chimes from an abandoned church and the mournful hooting of an owl, the all-too-recognisable Ambridge theme music romped rollickingly in.

And it’s always interesting and fun to research ghost tales within the different places, and adapt the original setting to the locality. Because is there a town or village in the UK – in the world in general – that doesn’t have its own ghost legend?

For Property of a Lady, which was to become the first of a series, (although I didn’t know that at the time), I disinterred these diaries, hoping they could be used as a base. There are many downsides to ghosts, but there are also a few advantages, and a large advantage is that they don’t date.

But if the ghost who walked through those pages was still credible, the diaries themselves needed a modern-day frame.   They needed modern people to find them, read them, be affected by them.  So, strongly aware of treading in the steps of the incomparable M.R. James, but hoping to print new footsteps of my own, I created an Oxford don – Michael Flint – as reluctant hero.
As for the house – the ‘Property of a Lady’ of the title – I moved it to the Shropshire borders, and summoned up a house with a dark reputation and lingering remnants of a strange legend – the legend of a nightmare figure carrying a grisly lantern.  A figure that wandered the countryside, and sometimes got inside the house itself, and that chanted eerie lines from an old country rhyme as it went:

‘Now open lock to the Dead Man’s knock,ingoldsby-1
Fly bolt, and bar, and band!
— Nor move, nor swerve
Joint, muscle, or nerve,
At the spell of the Dead Man’s hand.
Sleep all who sleep!– Wake all who wake!-
But be as the Dead for the Dead Man’s sake…’

For that beautifully macabre verse, (of which I’ve included only a fragment here), I’m hugely grateful to the Reverend Richard Barham and the marvellous Ingoldsby Legends. In particular, I’m indebted to him for the macabre tale of the Hand of Glory.

In Property of a Lady the house is called Charect House – according to the dictionaries also pronounced CARECT – which is a very old term for a charm: a spell set down in writing. Literally in characters – to ward off evil.

In 1749, a charect was apparently found on a condemned murderer in Chichester Gaol – he had it smuggled in so he could cheat the gallows. And the eerie thing is that he did cheat the gallows. While he was being measured for the irons in which his hanged body would later be displayed, he expired on the spot from sheer terror. Which perhaps goes to prove the old saying that the devil never honours his side of a bargain.

Did the long-ago owners of Charect House give it that name to ward off evil? If so, did it work? Well, it’s all in the book – the first of the series.

Ghost stories should be listened to or read in complete safety. They require a warm room – firelight – curtains drawn against the night, doors locked. All the things that reinforce security, so that you know the ghosts can’t get you.
Or can they?

polhttp://www.amazon.co.uk/Property-Michael-Flint-Haunted-House/dp/1847513476/ref=pd_rhf_gw_p_img_9?ie=UTF8&refRID=069E3DDPA8F4TQTECB4S