Monday, 29 March 2010

Werewolves and feminism

The Dark Goddess has taken about 17 years to write. I began it way, way back when I first read 'Women who run with the Wolves' and came across the nightmare character from my childhood, Baba Yaga. She who flies around in the pestle and mortar, lives in a hut that walks on giant chicken legs and eats naughty children. Back then, she was just an evil old witch. In 1993 I realised she was a goddess, if not THE Goddess.
No matter what the archeologists, historians and Darwinists say, and would like us to believe, I believe that myths are greater than any dust covered artefact. They may be the realities of our hands and skills, but myths are the realities of our souls.
Years pass, I have children, two daughters in fact. I look at the old myths and fairy tales with more critical eyes.
And I am disappointed.
The old, old stories are dripping with female power. The old wise witches are fierce, proud, respected. The village girls was clever, cunning and full of mischief, not afraid of bloody work and killing if the situation requires it. They will marry princes and kings because only princes and kings are their equal. They are subservient to no man.
Consider Maria Morevna.
Prince Ivan travels the world, looking for a mate, a partner. He comes across the slaughtered remains of an army. Who wiped out these thousands? The princess, Maria Morevna. When war comes, she goes off to battle, leaving Ivan to tend home and hearth. She's a sister who's doing for herself.
Vasilisa the Wise. The typical tale, evil stepmother and sisters. They send her out to get fire from Baba Yaga. The ancient witch teaches her, tests her, then gives her a glowing skull that lights the way home. Whcih she then uses to burn her stepmother and sisters to cinders. Like you do.
Baba Yaga herself. Cannibal. Thousands of years old. Night, dawn and day are her servants. To be a hero, you have to face her. You wouldn't get her being pushed into the oven and going out like a punk.
Kali. The black goddess. The last one standing when all the other gods have fled.
Athene. The goddess of war and wisdom. When it comes down to it, she's the one who kicks Ares's arse.
From that we ended up with Snow White. A house frau who's so stupid she takes the poisoned apple despite REPEATED warnings from, like everyone. Then lies dead until some wondering ner-do-well snogs her while asleep. Is that even legal?
Ditto Sleeping Beauty. Passive heroine par excellence.
Repunzel. Likewise. Just sitting ther, moping around, brushing her hair until some prince has to come and rescue her. Why the hell didn't she just climb down herself? You just want to slap her.
Little Red Riding Hood. They wanted to do the same. She gets gobbled up and has to be saved by the woodsman. Well, she's a different type of heroine. She takes a carving knife when she goes into the woods.
I suppose what I'm saying her is the ancient heroines knew what mattered, and that was POWER. Not girl power. Just power. Simply put the didn't rely on men saving the day, or having to go and curtesy and smile and whinge about why they couldn't do this or that. They didn't sit by the phone waiting for him to call.
Dark Goddess is set in Russia because it had to be. The old warrior women, the Amazons, came from there. They didn't settle for anything but the greatest of heroes, Hercules and Theseus. Their queen fought Achilles under the shadow of Troy.
If Devil's Kiss was about defeating the Angel of Death, Dark Goddess had to raise the stakes. For that I needed Baba Yaga, a goddess, and her Amazons.
Billi's grown up in the company of men. A total bad-ass company. Now she meets a female group, as dangerous and as proud and as independent as the Knight Templar. And if we're embracing the female myth, we'll go the whole hog. Women and the worship of the Great Goddess was always lunar based (see Robert Graves's writings on Greek Myths for more) and so that naturally led to the werewolf. Women are the shapechangers. The ancient double-axe of the Amazons was based on the crescent moon. All this moon/female symbology was too much to ignore.
Dark Goddess is on its way. The final edits are so nearly completed. I've had insane fun writing it and delving inot a very different lore compared to the Judaic-Christian-Islamic one I used as the basis of Devil's Kiss. I'm proud of it for many reasons, it's my second book but it's the one where Billi begins to grow up. Devil's Kiss was about her deciding what sort of Templar she wanted to be. Dark Goddess is about her deciding what sort of woman.
With Billi growing to grasp her full power, we need someone who can be her equal. I'll soon be introducing you to Tsarevich Ivan Alexeivich Romanov. While writing female heroes will always be a blast, he's not been so easy to get close to, but that's the nature of heroes. If anything, he's the anti-bad boy. It's ice-cold duty, rigid honour and unflinching loyalty that drive him. He's old style royalty and its not about having tea on the lawn. And old style royalty know thrones are bought with blood.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Did you ever wonder..?

Billi checked the address. Corner of Commercial and Fournier. The building in front of her was boarded up. Posters covered the walls and windows and the roof had partially collapsed. Derelict but this was the place for the party.
They were knocking down, at last.
About bloody time, too.
She checked up the street but this time of night even the muggers were in bed. The area had never been posh, exactly, but over the last few years the East End of London had become trendy and attracted the overspill from Canary Wharf, the financial heart of the city.
Well, until the credit crunch had hit.
Now the streets were lined with closed shops and houses all under the hammer. Repossessions were rife and the only thing booming here was misery.
This was Whitechapel. Misery was in the bricks and cobblestones. Billi could sense it now, the undercurrent of despair, the stain of things evil, and cruel. Once she’d visited a South London playground and felt the malevolence that seeped in the soil, a desolation. But the place had been small, lonely, abandoned and the site of murder.
Like here.
The years had passed, but it was still in the stones. The torment would last here until London sank under the waves.
The padlock opened with little effort. Who’d want to break in here, anyway? Billi slipped her lock-picks back into her pocket and slung her bag over her shoulder.
They came every year, to honour their promise. It was Billi’s turn.
The door to the pub groaned as she heaved it open. Dust fell from the loose plaster. Coughing, Billi swept her torch over the pub’s interior.
A juke box sat in the corner. The chrome shone and the red and gold plastic panelling seemed to glow with life as the torch beam passed over it. Billi stepped over a crate of empty bottles and made her way to the bar. Dusty glasses hung over her head and a mouse scurried across the oak bench.
She dropped her bag onto the wooden top and then wiped a patch clear of dust with her coat sleeve.
She unhooked a wine glass and cleaned it before settling it on the counter. That one down she did the same again until there was a line of five.
Unzipping the bag she pulled out a bottle of wine. Fresh out of the catacombs beneath Temple Church. The knights own personal wine cellar. The cork was wrapped with cobwebs.
The label had faded but it was the oldest bottle they had and Billi shone the light onto the date.
A bad year.
With a flick of her wrist she drew out her multi-tool and its corkscrew. A couple of twists, a pull and the bottle popped open.
This is it.
She’d faced worse, much must worse, but there was something about this task that made her skin crawl.
But why? It wasn’t their fault, what had happened. No, the failure wasn’t theirs. It was the Templars who’d failed.
Billi poured up the dark red wine. A few drops stained the dust like blood on ash. Maybe she should have brought white.
The bottle chimed against the last glass as she emptied it.
Above her head was a small brass ship’s bell. Traditional pubs had rung it, calling time.
Billi’s fingertips paused against the cold metal. Time had stood still for these guests.
She flicked the metal ball suspended beneath the bell and the chiming metal echoed loudly in the dusty darkness. The vibrations seemed to resonant in Billi’s heart, but maybe it was just the creeping dread, the fear, that made it tremble.
A breath of air carried with it the scent of perfume. Billi’s nostrils pricked at the stinging, lemony odour. She forced herself to let go of the bottle and leave it on the counter. She wasn’t here to fight.
The dust swirled and voices whispered, breaking the dead silence. One by one they came. The floorboards creaked as the first indistinct phantom solidified. Billi stepped back and her hand rose to her throat, to her crucifix as first eyes peered from the ghostly haze in the centre of the bar. Then it took shape, a torso, limbs, a head. A woman, middle-aged, care-worn with heavily layered clothes and her hair drawn in a tight bun and pegged in place with wooden pins. A thread-bare shawl sat over her rounded shoulders and she rubbed her wrinkled, bony fingers together.
“Hello, Mary,” said Billi.
The woman looked her, confused.
“Where’s Percy?” she said.
Of course. The last one they’d seen was her godfather. Ten years ago.
“Shame. I liked Percy.”
A second woman stepped out of the cold fog of ether. Billi recognised her form the old photos. True, she was a carved up slab of meat in the pictures, but there was enough of the old flower seller for Billi to put a name to the victim. Billi took a glass and handed it to her.
“Annie,” Billi said.
The woman frowned but took the glass. She glanced at Mary and the two exchanged a barely civil nod of acknowledgement. This was going to be a fun evening.
The tall skinny woman ignored Billi and went straight to the bar and emptied the glass in a single gulp. She smacked her lips and peered into the now empty bottle. She sighed them looked at the other two women, and finally Billi.
“They sent a girl?” she said.
“Stop complaining, Lizzie, I think that’s nice,” said the fourth woman. Like the other three she was middle-aged, tired and dishevelled. Her chubby fingers bore broken dirty nails but her bright hazel eyes were warm and clear. She put an arm around Billi and she tried not to flinch at the frosty chill that seeped through her skin. The plump woman seemed not to notice and smiled as Billi gave her a glass. The woman’s eyes sparkled. “Cheers,” she said.
The fifth woman was youngest. Her deep red-coloured hair hung loose around her shoulders and her bright blue eyes sat, burning in a pale, soft face. A wrinkle of anxiety appeared on her smooth brow as she saw Billi.
“I think it’s wrong,” she said. “She’s just a child.”
“I’m old enough, Mary Jane,” replied Billi. The young woman shrugged, but took her drink.
Billi took out her vial of holy oil and undid her crucifix. Both sat on the now clear bar top. Then she faced the five women.
Mary Ann Nichols. Annie Chapman. Elizabeth Stride. Cathy Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly. They were pale, ethereal shadows, drifting back and forth between the mortal realm and the shadow realm they’d come from.
The pain lingered in their eyes, those hollow mirrored orbs. Billi had experienced the restless dead up close once before and these five woman bore the same weary misery. The cuts were dark groves, along their necks and faces. The stains on their dresses and skirts dark brown where he’d taken his ragged blade and made these five women immortal, in their own way.
“Well,” asked Lizzie. She up ended the glass again, hoping to sip any last lingering drops. “You got him yet?”
“Of course they ain’t,” said Mary. “We’re still here. Ain’t that so?”
The temperature had dropped and Billi’s fingers were numb. You couldn’t hang around ghosts too long. They were a tear in the wall between life and death, and the realm of the dead was nothing but coldness. Billi watched the frost spread across the glass in Mary’s hand, decorating it with tiny cracks and patterns.
“We were hoping you might be able to help us in the search,” said Billi. She’d talked this over with Elaine and Arthur earlier in the evening. “Anything you might remember about him?”
“Saucy Jack? What’s there to remember?” Annie Chapman took off her hat and put it on the bar, idly fiddling with the silk roses fixed to the brim. Then she raised her eyes towards Billi. “I could show you, if you wanted.” Her fingers crept towards Billi’s hand. At each step they left a minute frozen fingerprint. “You want a taste of it, little girl?”
Billi’s hand touched her crucifix and Annie stopped. Her thin white lips puckered into a frown and then into a fake smile, only partially full as she’d lost a few teeth and what remained were crooked and brown.
Billi had been possessed before. It hadn’t been nice.
Cathy Eddowes slapped the woman’s shoulder. “Give over, Annie. You’re frightening the poor lass.” She smiled at Billi. “Now, what’s your name?”
“Billi SanGreal. My father is-”
“We know all about Arthur. We know,” interrupted Cathy. “Now, thank you very much for the drink, but now to business.”
The five women gathered at the table. They each stood erect and straight and while they’d been alive, they’d been very different in shape and appearance. Mary Jane was in her mid-twenties, the others all in their early to mid –forties. But in death, each wore a similar mask. The grinning skull was just visible beneath their misty visages, and in death all were the same.
“My father wishes to know if any new memories may have arisen, since our last meeting.”
Lizzie laughed. “New? What’s new to us? We’ve been like this for Lord knows how long. You promised us you’d find him. And you ‘aven’t.”
Billi narrowed her gaze. “Do we know he’s still alive? After all this time?”
“He’s alive alright,” said Annie, the hat now on her lap. “And he’s as busy as ever.”
Billi shivered. “Where?”
Annie shrugged. “Where there are women.”
“What did he look like?” Billi asked.
The women looked at each other. Mary shook her head but Lizzie spoke up.
“A face like an angel. Beautiful, but frightening. You know what I mean?”
“Yes.” Billi put her hand to her neck, feeling the scar there. The one the angel had given her. The Templars had paid a steep price in stopping him.
I hope he’s rotting in Hell.
“You don’t remember it clear, your own death. There’s too much else going on.” Lizzie touched her belly. Her fingers gently drew a line from lower abdomen up to her breastbone. “His knife, all I could think about was how shiny it was. It being so dark an’ all, but not his knife. Pure silver, bright like it had a life of its own.”
“Where’s he now?” Billi asked.
Lizzie’s attention came back to the question. “Across the sea. He’s been lots of different places.”
Billi sighed. This was getting them no-where. She looked at the cross and holy oil. “Our offer still stands, ladies. We can give you your freedom. You just need to ask.”
“No. We’re not ready yet. You’ve got your bargain to fulfil and, I don’t know about you,” said Mary as she gazed around the table. “But I want to be there, when we get him. I’ll even hold the door open for him. All friendly-like. And I’ll say, with a curtsey, ‘Hallo, Jack. It’s been a long time, but do you remember me? We met just twice, at Ten Bells the first time when you bought me a glass of gin, then again, at Durward Street when you put your knife across my throat and up through my pretty skirts and my guts.’ Then I’ll give him my sweetest smile and watch him burn in Hell.”
“You think he’ll remember the likes of you?” Snorted Annie. “With all the others he’s done?”
“I’ll make him remember.”
A glass crashed to the floor. Cathy looked at her hand, watched it begin to fade. “Already?” she said. She looked at Billi with sad, forlorn eyes. “No, not so soon.”
Mary Jane went next, evaporating before Billi’s eyes with just a sad shake of her head. Annie and Lizzie were fading but Mary, her essence was stronger. She stared at Billi, her teeth gritted with effort. When she spoke, her voice was distant and faint.
“Look out, Billi SanGreal. His tastes have changed. He likes the pretty ones and you’d just up his alley.”
Billi shivered. “Where can I find him?”
Mary laughed. “Oh, don’t worry about that. He’ll find you.”
“Soon.” Mary was little more than a misty shadow now. “He’s coming home, Billi. Home.”
Billi stepped forward and reached out at the fading mist. Mary’s face waved and her voice was brittle and faint.
“Jack’s coming home.”


Monday, 8 March 2010

...and then these two gods appeared out of NO-WHERE!

Here's a clip of the action in Delhi during my recent India trip. As you can see its the god Shiva and Kali out for a stroll down the high street. There was a festival going on but not exactly clear which festival, but hey, it's Shiva and Kali! Very cool. Which leads me onto the current Indian project.
I have only huge awe and respect for those who write historical fiction. I wouldn't know where to start, to be honest. At least with my tales I can go visit the places I've set it in and chec out the people, the scenery and the gods. It does also make me wonder where next? Vague plans put me in a Kabul frame of mind but that may be a bit too exciting for my own good and after all, we do have Google Earth so you don't have to visit major war zones if you don't want to.
I've just posted out a new short story to the newsletter people (it'll come up on the website in a week or so). One of the (other) advantages of setting my books in the 'real' world is I can use the vast ocean of pre-existing tales and histories and give them a Templar slant. London's probably one of the most ghost haunted places on the planet and there's been enough dark and evil deeds to keep me in clover 'till the day I lay down my pen.
And we have monsters. Real ones.
So, the latest story concerns perhaps the greatest villain of them all. Over a hundred years ago he haunted the fog-bound streets of Whitechapel and since then, if anything, his fame has only become greater.
Ladies and getlemen, I give you Jack...

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Mortlock by Jon Mayhew

Well, I've tried to avoid him for God knows how long but I've got to face it, Jon Mayhew's here to stay.
Born in the barbarians lands beyond Watford, it's fairly obvious to me that there is SOMETHING VERY WRONG about Jon, and it's not just his haircut. Being brought up by a den of badgers hasn't helped his social skills, or eating habits, but there's something spooky about him, and more than a little macabre about his writing.
MORTLOCK is a gothic, Victorian horror show, in all the best ways.
Gruesome, melancoly, and absolutely dripping with atmosphere it's the first book I've read in a long time that I finished in the day.
Here's the blurb:

The sister is a knife-thrower in a magician's stage act, the brother an undertaker's assistant. Neither orphan knows of the other's existence. Until, that is, three terrible Aunts descend on the girl's house and imprison her guardian, the Great Cardamom. His dying act is to pass the girl a note with clues to the secret he carries to his grave. Cardamom was one of three explorers on an expedition to locate the legendary Amarant, a plant with power over life and death. Now, pursued by flesh-eating crow-like ghuls, brother and sister must decode the message and save themselves from its sinister legacy.

It's not out until April, but I've been very lucky to have a chance to pick his Jon's brains recently and, while they may have left a difficult to remove stain on the carpet, his brains revealed much.

1. Firstly, and arguably most importantly, is it true than you were brought up in the wilds of north England by a den of badgers? I merely raise this because of the bristling nature of your hair, or is it just some special shampoo you use?
Shampoo? In the North? I’d be fed to the whippets if I even thought of using shampoo. The badgers have always been kind to me, so I’ve started to grow some grey hairs in their honour.
2. Most writers are advised to introduce their protagonist asap. You open with three characters that basically don't appear again and the heroine, Josie, is nowhere to be seen. Was this an issue since it seems to go so strongly against received wisdom? Can you give us a bit of background on the editing and rewriting process?
I was nervous of using a prologue at first and as you say, the received wisdom is that a prologue isn’t recommended. Personally, I quite like a prologue and as long as it’s needed, there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s a good way of showing events of the past instead of have tons of exposition.
Mortlock has gone through countless numbers of rewrites (I have genuinely forgotten how many). It was a sprawling book at first and through time it has become more and more streamlined. I shed a lot of favourite scenes and characters. Lots of darlings died in the rewrites but that’s what has to be done!
3. The book's amazingly rich in setting, but done without labouring the background detail about Victorian London. Can you tell us a bit about the research you did to build such a believably real world?
I start with a search of events and glean as much as I can from the internet. The Dictionary of Victorian London is invaluable and Lee Jackson should get some kind of medal for setting it up.
I also read Henry Mayhew and Ackroyd’s London.
But I wouldn’t let any of the research get in the way of creating a dark atmospheric Hammer Horror type London, which is what people want! Fog and shadows and filthy streets and ragamuffins. I was musing the other day as I travelled through Liverpool how rich the city is in Victorian architecture, so I’ve grown up amongst all these influences.
4. Josie really reminds me of Lyra out of Pullman's Northern Lights, a ragamuffin heroine with lots of guts and loyalty. How did Joise come about and was it a concious decision to have a female protagonist? Were there any issues regarding writing a lead character of a different sex?
Josie existed before Alfie, although Alfie was my first character in Mortlock. Josie stepped out of my first book that never saw the light of day. I have to admit, I love the His Dark Materials Trilogy and Lyra must have been lurking in the back of my mind. We hear a lot about books for boys and girls and I suppose I wanted to write something for children, so I felt including a male and a female main protagonist was the natural way to do it. At first, Josie was a rather stereotyped blonde-haired, blue eyed Victorian girly-type but I managed to edit her into something a bit more ordinary and believable. I had to consider clothing as well, Victorian girls didn’t wear trousers!
5. Your next book, Demon Collector, is set in the same world as Mortlock, but not with the same characters. Why not return to Josie? I for one would love to see much more of her. What can you tell us about it?
I love FE Higgins and the way she weaves her stories around different characters in the same universe. It gives you so much scope to mix and match characters later in clever ways or to overlap stories. I also felt that Josie and Alfie’s story had been told, it was complete. Though the eagle-eyed (or should I say crow-eyed) may notice the odd slightly lose end. The final Ballad gives a clue too!
6. You've turned DC around very quickly. How much of the next two books was decided at the point of your publishing deal? Did you have a trilogy in mind at the beginning or was this something that you developed with the publisher?
I had a Demon Collector synopsis roughed out when we sold Mortlock and it was part of the package. I didn’t have a trilogy in kind at first in fact Demon Collector started as a modern YA novel idea but it wasn’t working for me. The moment I pitched it into Victorian London, it all fell into place. I wouldn’t say I’ve turned it around quickly either, it’s sitting on my editor’s desk right now and I’m sure it’ll come back with lots of ‘suggestions!’
7. Without giving the plot away, what was the hardest aspect of writing the book? A scene, a character?
For me it is keeping track of the plot. As I write, I can go off on tangents. This is fine but often I end up down blind alleys and it leads to repetition. I find it easier to map everything out and then keep to the plan. I can always change the plan if I need to. I could write short exciting scenes by the thousand but it’s stringing them together and threading them through the development of the character that’s the trick.
8. Each chapter opens with a verse from an old ballad. Can you tell us how and why this motif came about?
I’ve loved traditional music since I was a child. One of the themes of the book is what you pass down to the next generation. In an early draft, a character tells Josie that we can still hear the dead talk through the songs that are passed down through the ages. I believe that. I wanted a way to link the book into the voices of the people of the time.
I read a beautiful book called The New Policeman by Kate Thompson and it was punctuated by Irish tunes. It gave me the idea of using gory ballads to open each verse.
The ballad, Twa Corbies, gave me the monstrous crow-like ghuls.

Needless to say, it's an amazing book and deserves a huge amount of success. If you're a fan of Darren Shan (and frankly, who isn't?), Phillip Pullman or just great, dark horror-shows, get this book. BTW, the circus scene will disturb your dreams for a LONG time.