Half a Step into the Weird – GUEST POST by Jen Williams (TALONSISTER)
Half a Step into the Weird
by Jen Williams
To start with a small confession: I have never been especially clear on the difference between folklore, folk tales, fairy tales, myths and legends. Which is perhaps surprising given how important they have always been to me, both growing up and as an adult, and certainly in my professional life as an author. When I was very small, my mum bought me The Complete Grimm Fairy Tales, a big brown book with stark black and white illustrations that she quickly realised was woefully inappropriate for a five-year-old. But I loved it anyway, and when I was a bit older and had my own library card, I branched out into reading similar stories. I came home with books on the Greek myths, on Arthurian legend, on Norse sagas and the like. I became especially keen on big books about ‘unexplained phenomena’, which often contained excellent colour photos of things purporting to be the Loch Ness monster or Big Foot, or the blurred and scratchy images of ghosts. I scoured the library for cryptids (an excellent place to look for them, if you ask me) and became fascinated with the super-local supernatural: there’s an old public toilet in Greenwich that’s said to be haunted; Highgate Cemetery has its own vampire; in Northumberland, they believe that foxgloves grow in the ancient footsteps of Roman soldiers. Who wouldn’t love this stuff?
These days, if I sit and think about it, I could tell you which bits were folk legend, which bits were mythology – I could even identify an urban legend, another sub-genre that has always fascinated me, with its tales of murderers hiding in the back seats of cars and so on. But what was important to me then, and is important to me now, is how all of these stories are one step away from the world we know and inhabit every day. Reality is there, but it’s not the whole truth. I was an introverted kid, a bit of an outsider maybe – I liked to spend time by myself, in my grandparents’ garden or riding my bike around the cul-de-sac where they lived, usually telling myself stories, making things up. I had a natural affinity for the weird (I suspect a lot of proto-writers do) and absolutely no patience for the everyday. When I read about giant phantom dogs that prowled the north of Britain, or ghosts that haunted ancient battlefields, or the girl with blood running from her eyes that appeared in the mirror if you said the correct words, it gave me a thrilling glimpse of the world as I knew it should be, deep in my heart. Strange. Magical. Unknowable. Weird.
We’re always looking for the origins of things, and although it is pretty much impossible to unpick everything that has influenced you during your busy life, I think it’s quite possible that this early love of folklore, myth and legend made me a writer. It almost certainly made me a fantasy writer. It goes hand in hand with the animated movie of Watership Down, a film I saw when I was much too young (like most people my age) and that undoubtedly had an enormous, irreversible impact on my brain chemistry. Not, as you might expect, because of all the alarming bunny-murder and nightmare imagery (although let’s be clear, I absolutely loved that) but because it revealed a great bunny-mythology, a bunny-pantheon, with a creation myth and a trickster god. I couldn’t get enough of it. My family were not religious, and it tickles me to think that when I was five or six I probably knew more about El-ahrairah and the Black Rabbit of Inlé than I did about Jesus and Christianity and all that jazz.
When I started taking writing more seriously, in my early twenties, the first thing I wanted to write was fantasy, because I wanted more of that world that was half a step – or even a giant leap – away from ours. And eight published novels later, that remains the case. The Copper Cat books, following the adventures of Wydrin Threefellows, a chaotic mercenary, and Sir Sebastian, a kind-hearted disgraced knight, owed a lot to my love of Fritz Leiber and a number of fantasy-based RPG video games, but there was a strong seam of the weird in there too – from the demon that Sebastian becomes embroiled with, to the creepy Children of the Fog.
A few years ago I stepped away from fantasy briefly to write crime novels, and once again the weird was there. Dog Rose Dirt is a book intimately connected to fairy tales, with the main antagonist obsessed with the darker versions of the stories we heard in nursery school, but outside of his scenes the book is dripping with the uneasy imagery of folklore. In fact, the original draft title was The Barghest, the name of one of the demon dogs said to haunt crossroads and graveyards. I had read that if the Barghest bites you, the wound will never heal, and something about that felt exactly right for a book about trauma, responsibility and the past encroaching on the present. Lingering wounds… Quite rightly, The Barghest as a title was kicked out in the early stages of publishing, but the black dog itself remains in the book, haunting Heather from the side-lines as she investigates her mother’s relationship with an infamous serial killer. Games for Dead Girls, my second foray into these darker genres, is even more tied into folklore and urban legend, and I had a lot of fun creating my own vengeful ghost in the shape of Stitch Face Sue. Sue owes a lot to both the Slender Man and Doctor Syn, and I’m very aware that Charlie, the story-obsessed compulsive liar at the heart of the book, owes a lot to me.
There are echoes of stories and folklore in the Winnowing Flame trilogy too, although given that this is a world of giant insects, blood-drinking elves and alien invasions, it’s probably not quite as obvious. But the giant near-mythical tree that gives the Eborans their long life and super strength appears again and again in folklore and myth – from the tree that gives Eve the forbidden fruit, to Yggdrasill, the tree that connects the nine worlds in Norse mythology. There are few symbols as rich in story and weirdness as the humble tree, which might be why I love them so much.
Which brings me to Talonsister, the new fantasy novel I have coming out in September. It’s difficult to talk that much about Talonsister, because a) I am terrible at summarising my books in a succinct way and b) it’s not out yet and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but the story takes place in a kind of alternate Britain… Except that’s not completely accurate, because this is still very much a fantasy world, and quite some distance from historical fiction – or even historical fantasy. It’s a dream of a Britain that might have existed before the Romans arrived; a dream you might have after eating some dubious mushrooms and falling asleep under a haunted tree.
When I started writing Talonsister – when I realised it took place in this strange version of Britain – I was excited to be able to use the folklore and mythology that was so familiar to me in a much more direct way. Much of the Britain of Talonsister is covered in a vast, mysterious wood peopled with ghosts and spirits, and underneath the ground there are giants sleeping, while griffins nest in the mountains of the north. Tiny creatures you only ever spot out of the corner of your eye could be turning your milk sour; wolves move across the open stretches of land only to disappear when sunlight hits them. Here, finally, with this book, I could go wild with all the weird stories I’ve ever loved, using them as characters, as background, as world-building. Folklore, myth, and legend are the very bones of Talonsister. And it’s been an absolute blast. I’m currently writing the sequel, and the very first thing I did was go back to my books on folklore and myth – there’s still so much more to play with!
So if you want to grow your own fantasy author, I would suggest finding the nearest amenable child and giving her a book of folklore and fairy tales. What’s the worst that could happen?
Jen Williams has published two trilogies – The Copper Promise series and The Winnowing Flame series – and has won multiple British Fantasy Awards. In 2015 she was nominated for Best Newcomer in the BFAs. Both The Iron Ghost and The Silver Tide have also been nominated for BFAs and she was involved in founding the Super Relaxed Fantasy Club, a social group that meets in London to celebrate a love of fantasy. Jen lives in London and Tweets @sennydreadful
Talonsister is due for release 12th September from Titan Books You can pre-order your copy on Bookshop.org