European Gods and Gods from the Fertile Crescent tend to hold power over things. Or at least that’s how we frame and understand them – how much of that understanding is filtered through more recent patriarchal perspectives is hard to say. I’ve long found the feudal language around Gods uneasy – the Lords and Masters and Kings and Rulers…
Currently Dr Abbey and I are working on the idea of Guardian Gods for the fiction project we’re co-creating. I like this as a concept and as a way of thinking about deity. I like the idea of masculine deities whose role is first and foremost, protective. Not a God who owns or controls, but a God who defends and cares for something.
This is the Guardian of the North, the first of the Guardian Gods that Abbey drew. Clearly this is not ‘the north’ of Druid circles, or Wiccan Watchtowers.
I think there’s a fighting chance this would stand alone without reading book 1 first, but really, why would you do that to yourself? Read book 1 first and then read this one! There’s always that worry with a series that the author won’t be able to live up to the promise of the opening, or that it will all spiral out of control – well, that’s not an issue here.
I loved book 1, and book 2 follows on from it wonderfully. Mat expands and develops the story and the setting with great style and skill. Life on Mars is explored in greater detail and the plots we encountered in book 1 become even plottier. As some mysteries seem to become clearer, new questions and problems arise for the characters. What’s critically important in this is that it feels entirely controlled. There’s clearly an underlying story here, and as the world building expands, more sense can be made of what’s going on, not less.
This is a wonderfully diverse tale, with characters from all kinds of backgrounds. It sets that diversity in a context that is sometimes supportive, sometimes problematic for the characters. There’s some of that Victorian prudery, and an exploration of prejudice around it, but also a strong pushback against narrow and restrictive ways of being. There’s a look at the realities of colonialism that does not romanticise invasion, conquest or settlement. While the central characters are largely privileged people, the story itself exposes that privilege and its implications in all sorts of ways.
This is a complicated adventure with a lot of action and a great deal going on – murder and revenge, spies and political scheming, evil science, strange sf elements, mystery, wonder, smugglers, airships, afternoon tea… it’s a really strong mix that managed to be both grounded and surprising.
I particularly like Mat’s approach to storytelling – the tale is presented as a series of documents gathered after the event – diaries, text books, letters and so forth. Sometimes the story is fragmented. Sometimes it overlaps, but in the overlapping versions, doubts and possibilities appear. The first person voices of the characters are distinctive, and the choice of who not to give a voice to also affects the plot in significant ways. I think it’s technically a really clever piece of work, which I also enjoyed. I may think about the mechanics of this sort of thing more than is normal!
It’s not easy reviewing a book in a series because almost any comment on the details has the potential to spoiler the previous instalments. This is especially true of this series, where even talking too much about the identities of the characters in book 2 might give away too much about who has survived book 1 and what has changed for them.
Who would you be if you woke one morning as the person you have been in dreams? If longing led to transformation, what form might you now hold?
Or are you full of nightmares? If the inside became the outside, what would we see of you? Are there demons in your heart trying to break free? Are you driven most by hunger, or by cruelty, would you become a predator, or something more vicious?
Who would you be if the inner self who frightens you most were allowed to become your whole self, you true self?
If a Goddess of transformation came to you when you were unguarded and ill prepared, what would she pluck from your soul to manifest in the world?
Would you offer up prayers to her? Would you burn incense and light candles, would you sing in her temple in the hopes of courting her favour? Would you ask that she recreate you as your most authentic self? Do you know who that would be?
Would you seek her out, or flee from her?
(This is part of a creative project I’m developing with Dr Abbey – the art is his, and he’s prompting me with ideas to develop. I’m going to blog once a week with this as I’m thinking about things, because world building is slow and this gives me a good space to develop ideas. Nothing you see here will be anything like the final work. If all goes well, I’ll start writing in earnest in the autumn.)
The first time the hat spoke, Marion simply ignored it. “I did not want to be a hat,” it said. Why would she care? Not only had the bear become a hat, it had become her hat and it looked splendid and fashionable.
“I never even got to be a real bear,” the hat mentioned, a few days later. “They grew me for the fur. I was never really properly alive.”
“Well, isn’t it better that way?” Marion said to the hat. “You didn’t really suffer, you were never an actual bear. I don’t know what you’re complaining about.”
The hat was not appeased by this. She worried that other people would hear it talking to her, but even so could not bring herself to go out without it. Such a fashionable hat. So desirable, during these most wintery weeks. Even when at home, she found herself wearing it, although often she could not remember putting it on.
One morning, she woke in bed, wearing her nightgown, and the hat. Marion was skilful when it came to not thinking about things that might be troublesome. Even so, it took her until after breakfast to put aside the disquiet of finding she had worn the hat to bed. She wore the hat to work. She wore the hat for a lunch date during which she was overwhelmed by a desire for fresh fruit. From that day onwards, it never occurred to her to remove that hat from her head, no matter what she was doing.
It might be simplest to say that the hat ate her. It would not be an accurate description of the mechanical process, but there is comfort in metaphor. There were no further lunch dates.
I loved this book, but it is not going to be an easy one to describe or explain. It is a definite candidate for ‘strangest thing I have ever read’ and ‘book that it is least possible to pigeonhole’. Here’s my best shot.
There are two sections. The first section is a story, often written more like poetry. Archetypes, allegory, parable, cyberpunk myth making with tongue firmly in cheek and no entirely definitive message except that you may be hungry, and that bacon or porridge or cannibalism may be the answer. It hints at many things and invites you to fill in the gaps. It is beautiful, funny and unsettling. If Kafka had set out to write Alice in Wonderland it would have looked a lot like this, I think.
Part two is a comedy grimoire for chaos magicians with a keen sense of the absurd. Wickedly playful, and full of things that undermine and re-frame the first half of the book. It’s a puzzlebox that might give you a cenobite, or summon a sinister jack in the box, or reveal some piece of bad taxidermy that makes you hurt yourself laughing.
Anarchic, ridiculous, startling, bacon rich, perturbing, glorious and probably won’t cause you to summon an actual demon of any great threat or substance. Probably.
Here’s the blurb – It’s Bagatelle. There’s a Wreck in The Zone. This is not part of The Plan. But you are, and your instructions are simple – DESTROY THIS BOOK. Ghosts of Wit is an interactive cybertext. A grimoire for the apocalypse. A tongue-in-cheek rainy day activity book for bored magicians. A bizarre Easter Egg hunt through a twisted Wonderland in the company of dead poets, sinister psychopomps, sentient tarot cards and a mysterious cat with a fiddle. Is there life after Porridge? Who is Mary? What does it mean to Tread Well in life? Who started the fire? Why does the old man smile? And would you like a bacon sandwich? Are just some of the questions this book will not attempt to answer. However if you already know the answers, then jump on your camel and join the hunt for the book that doesn’t exist…
Fiction inspired by folklore has had a bit of a renaissance in recent years. Folklore and folk tales have always been a fruitful lode for fantasy writers but through the novels of writers like Sarah Perry and Joanne Harris it’s become both more literary and more mainstream.
I’m the author of the Spellworker Chronicles which are contemporary fantasy novels inspired by folklore. Beltane grew out of the folklore of Glastonbury and Storm Witch was inspired by an Orcadian folk tale. There are challenges in taking folklore as your starting point especially if you’re translating it to a contemporary setting. Some things don’t shift forward as well as others. Orkney has stories of trows, fairylike creatures who are not blessed in the looks department, who have a habit of tempting human into their world. In writing Storm Witch I couldn’t find a use for the trows, even though there’s some great stories about them. I had to accept that they didn’t fit with the world I was creating.
I was more interested in the tales that people told about the pre-historic sites on the islands. There’s a saying that if you scratch the surface in Orkney it bleeds archaeology. Orkney’s World Heritage Site comprises the key sites of Skara Brae, Maeshowe, the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar. The dig at the Ness of Brodgar has revealed a Neolithic temple complex which has overthrown much accepted thinking about the period. It’s exciting stuff if you’re interested in pre-history and the lives of the people who built such fascinating but enigmatic monuments.
It’s believed that folk tales grew up around pre-historic sites as a way for subsequent inhabitants to understand the landscape they’d inherited. I’m from Yorkshire and there’s a great example of that in the Devil’s Arrows, three standing stones just off the A1 at Boroughbridge. According to legend these were thrown by the Devil from a nearby hill. He was aiming for the next town of Aldborough but the stones fell short and landed near Boroughbridge instead. Similarly, there’s the Devil’s Chair at Avebury. According to folklore if you wish to speak to Old Nick you need to run round it a hundred times widdershins after which he’ll appear to you. It’s not hard to imagine that for a God-fearing population the Devil must have been a handy way of interpreting these inexplicable monoliths.
It’s where magic and folklore intersect that I find the questions arise for the writer. The folk tale of Janet Forsyth, the storm witch of Westray (one of the northern islands of the Orkney archipelago) is a mixture of fact and folklore. It involves a girl who was believed to be able to control the weather and call up storms. You can read my retelling of the story on my website but the key elements are that Janet had an unusual ability to read the weather which results in the other islanders ostracizing her. Then when a ship was blown onto the rocks in a storm, she rowed out and brought it safely to harbour. Unlike Grace Darling three hundred years later, it was felt that only through witchcraft could a woman have achieved this. Janet was tried and convicted as a witch.
There were two question which interested me most about this story. The first was what if Janet could actually do what she was accused of? From that grew the character of Rachel Sinclair who has the power to manipulate the weather but is unable to control her abilities. As the Spellworker Chronicles have spellworkers (which are extremely powerful witches) and druids the book imagines the possibilities of this form of magic in the real world setting of the Orkney archipelago.
The second was, how do you cope when your whole world falls apart? In the story Janet loses her sweetheart, loses her place in her community and is tried and convicted for witchcraft. As this is a folk tale we don’t find out what that does to Janet and how she puts her life back together but in Storm Witch I could look at that. The two female main characters are living with the repercussions of trauma and have to decide how that affects the way they interact with the world.
Of course, when Janet was alive in the seventeenth century the belief in magic was much more prevalent in society. In the same way as the Devil was thought responsible for standing stones, witchcraft was the go-to explanation for an unusually powerful or intuitive woman. There’s always a choice for the writer as to whether they accept the magical which comes with the folklore. Personally (and there’s a potential spoiler coming) I was hugely disappointed in Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent as, in the end, it didn’t. As I’m writing fantasy I can explore these questions and let them play out in the world of druids and spellworkers that I’ve created.
Alys West writes contemporary fantasy and steampunk. She lives in Yorkshire but loves to travel especially to Scottish islands. Her stories grow out of places and the tales which people tell about places. Her work draws on her own experience of surviving trauma but always with the possibility of a hopeful ending.
Alys has a MA in Creative Writing from York St John University and teaches creative writing at the Centre for Lifelong Learning at the University of York. She’s also a book whisperer (like a book doctor but more holistic), mentor to aspiring writers and runs an online mindful writing group.
When she’s not writing you can find her at folk gigs, doing yoga and attempting to crochet. She occasionally blogs at www.alyswest.com, intermittently tweets at @alyswestyork and spends rather too much time on Facebook where you can find her at Alys West Writer. She is also on Instagram at @alyswestwriter. To keep up with Alys’s news you can join her Facebook readers’ group ‘Druids, Spellworkers and Dirigibles’.
“What the rabbits…” The Stupes intuitively aimed their torches at the silvered bottle, which promptly exploded into the brilliance of a flash of lightning.
Joy removed her thumb from the bottle’s opening and began to chant, “Fus sceal feran, fæge sweltan.Mod sceal thee mare, thee ure mægen lytlath.”
“Witch!” one of the Stupes hissed, and stumbled backward.
“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” the leader snarled, but he too backed off a little.
Joy ignored them, her focus entirely on the ancient words, her tone increasingly exuberant. “Sitte ge, sigewif, sigath to eortha!Næfre ge wilde to Wyrdwuda fleogan! Næfre ge wilde to Wyrdwuda fleogan!”
She looked at the bottle expectantly, as did all of the others.
Joy’s heart sank.
“Blimey,” Maisy said.
“Right,” the Stupe leader said. “The nidgets have had their fun. GRAB THEM!”
The other Stupes moved at the children, to halt almost immediately as Will began to shout.
Maisy joined him “It’s alive, it’s moving, it’s alive!”
Nan Malone’s bottle, however, remained bereft of any kind of animation.
“Fools,” the Stupe leader berated his colleagues. “They’re playing tricks on—”
His voice was drowned out by an almighty crash and splintering of wood within the ruined church.
Joy realised instantly what Nan Malone, the only Guardian who never feared the creature, had done, even before the stale and musky air that had been trapped in the church’s crypt for centuries reached her nose.
Maisy and Will’s words echoed in her thunderstruck mind.
It’s alive. It’s alive. It’s alive!
“What the blazes?” Will made to turn around, and Joy reached out with her free hand to stop him.
She issued urgent instructions at her friends. “Get on the ground, roll up into a ball. Keep your eyes shut. Do NOT open them until I say…”
“But Joy, what…” Maisy began to protest.
“LISTEN to me,” Joy hissed. “Do it NOW.”
Her friends were puzzled, and a little frightened, but did as Joy commanded.
In the nick of time. Joy didn’t need to turn around to confirm what was emerging from the ruins. She could read it on the faces of the Stupes, who stared dumbstruck, two of them dropping their torches and fumbling with shaking hands for their shotguns.
Joy also sensed its presence. A menacing and malicious aura, with a seemingly primeval appetite for destruction. It was hauling in deep breaths, as if relishing the sweet taste of fresh air after centuries of confinement. There was a rustling sound as it unfolded its great wings, shaking the dust off its black feathers with something between a sob and a sigh escaping from its sharp beak.
The Stupes, staring straight into those red glowing eyes, trembled with fear and began to back off, away from Ellette Hornsby’s tomb and the nightmare that had appeared behind it – one described so accurately by Maisy and Will earlier on.
“Take the chavees,” their leader implored. “Leave us be.”
Joy felt those glowing eyes behind her boring right through her soul.
Nan Malone had been the only Guardian to feel sympathy for the creature. The monstrous entity, Joy knew, would bear little love for those associated with the Guardians as a whole. Yet, Nan Malone had chosen to aid Joy by releasing the shadow that had languished so long within the crypt. The old healer wasn’t visible, but here now nonetheless, that much was clear.
“W…what is that thing?” the bulky Stupe asked in a small frightened voice.
“Ufmanna,” the Stupe leader answered. “The little bitch has released Ufmanna.”
Joy shut her eyes, half-expecting to feel the creature’s talons sinking into her flesh, seeking to claw out her heart.
We released you. We mean you no harm.
There was an angry snort behind her and Joy tensed up.
So be it.
She spread her arms wide – Nan Malone’s bottle still in one hand –, arched her back, and turned her face to the moon.
Spare my friends. They have naught to do with this.
She could hear Ufmanna’s wings as it took to the air, making straight for the tomb. It shrieked eerily, much as a scritch owl would, but the sound was magnified a thousandfold and seemed to pierce Joy’s very bones.
Ufmanna came close enow to snatch Nan Malone’s bottle from Joy’s hand. Without a pause though, sweeping right past her to head straight for the Stupes.
One of the shotguns was discharged with a thunderous blast, but the shot was panicked and not aimed properly, kicking up a small fountain of earth at the base of Ellette’s tomb.
The rat-faced Stupe dropped his gun, the barrel smoking, and scampered out of the churchyard, screaming like a stuck pig. The others followed in a blind panic, dropping torches and guns, the bulky Stupe whimpering pathetically, the leader crying for his mother.
Ufmanna pursued, its torso the size of a man’s but on the whole much larger due to a fearsomely broad wingspan. It clutched Nan Malone’s bottle in one claw, holding it with care because Joy had no doubt that it could have easily crushed the silvered glass just by flexing its talons ever so lightly.
The Stupes made it out of the churchyard and fled toward the Taunflow. Their frightened screams appeared to be mocked by Ufmanna, the creature no longer scritching like an owl, but mimicking the men’s horrified cries of fear instead. Ufmanna, Joy knew, liked to play with its victims with the cold dispassion of a cat toying with a cornered mouse.
Unable to withstand their curiosity any longer, Maisy and Will scrambled onto the tomb just in time to see the Stupes stampeding down the broad dirt path before they were swallowed up by the night, Ufmanna’s dark shadow on their heels.
“What the hell!” Will exclaimed in disbelief.
“Did that…thing…come out of the bottle?” Maisy asked.
Joy hesitated, before answering, “Naun, out of the crypt. It were lured there after the plague, and sealed in…”
…with powerful spells by the Guardians who survived Nan Malone.
“What kind of animal is it?” Will asked.
“Naun an animal,” Joy said. “Ufmanna means Owl Man. Tis man-made, in a fashion.”
“Aha,” Maisy said, as if that made perfect sense. “Like Doctor Moreau.”
“Or Frankenstein,” Will added. “Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful!”
Joy stared at them speechlessly. The mere sight of Ufmanna was enow to drive most folk out of their own minds, and here her friends were discussing it casually as if they had just been to the pictures again.
“Nah-ah.” Maisy shook her head. “I reckon Moreau. You made us…things! Not men! Not beasts! Part man…part beast! Things!”
Will added sombrely, “I must confess that I lost faith in the sanity of the world.”
The cousins chuckled and chortled, a sound that drew Valkerie back to Maisy’s shoulder. It occurred to Joy that her friends were likely to be partially in shock and employing the magic of the silver screen to cope. There was a broth Joy could make, at the cottage where she lived with her mother, which would leastways take the edge off.
Mum’ll find out soon enow that Ufmanna’s free. I had no choice, twere that or be taken to Malheur. But I’ll get a proper dish of tongues no matter what.
In the distance, the Stupes stopped screaming one by one.
“We’d better go,” Joy decreed. “Ufmanna might come back.”
There were no objections. Maisy didn’t even frown when Joy told her to leave the torches and shotguns where the Stupes had dropped them, even though Joy knew for sure Maisy would be much disappointed to not be getting her hands on a shotgun.
They walked away from Tuckersham in silence and at considerable pace. It wasn’t until they had passed Lewinna’s Pond that they eased up somewhat.
“Joy,” Will said hesitantly. “That bottle, the words you spoke…are you a—”
“Yes,” Joy answered quickly, reckoning there was no point denying the obvious. “But your spells worked bettermost too.”
“My spells?” Will asked.
“The both of you. I’ve heard of the magic of the silver screen afore, but nohows believed it to have dunnamuch power.”
Maisy laughed. “It ain’t quite like that, is it?”
Joy shook her head. There were things she could no longer keep from her friends after this night, but nor could they deny the power of the pictures, not after what Joy had witnessed. To prove her point, she exercised her first foray into this new magic, by admitting to the cousins that she was ready for her first ever visit to the moving pictures. This was partially because Joy reckoned she should educate herself in this manner of magic, and partially because it took the cousins’ mind off Tuckersham and Ufmanna. They spent the rest of their walk to Joy’s home in a fervent and very learned debate on whether to take Joy to The Door with Seven Locks or The Thief of Bagdad. Valkerie, casting a wary eye upward, was the only one in the company who observed a witch in a bottle sparkling like a diamond as she orbited the silver moon in the gentle grasp of a dark shadow, free at last in the night sky.
The author, told once too often that he spent too much time in his imagination, finally took the hint and moved there on a full-time basis. He now divides his time between the Wyrde Woods, a Steampunked smuggling world, and the high seas in search of the Flying Dutchman. www.nilsnissevisser.co.uk
Joy, Maisy, and Valkerie feature in Secrets of the Wyrde Woods: Forgotten Road. Will is added to the mix in Will’s War in Exile. A much older Joy and Will feature in Escape from Neverland and Dance into the Wyrd, as well as a certain troubled soul in army boots and skull-patterned dress, and Ufmanna, the Owl Man of Tuckersham. A translation of Joy’s spell can be found in Draka Raid, also set in the Wyrde Woods forever and longer ago when Viking raids were fashionable. You could try googling the spell, I suppose, but where’s the adventure in that?
 Dr Henry Frankenstein (played by Colin Clive)in Frankenstein (1931)
For some time now, I’ve been giving away pdfs of my self-published work. As many of you have followed the blog since I started doing that, you may not have seen all of these and you might want to get in for them.
At present I have 4 pdfs in my ko-fi store. They’re ‘pay what you like’ and it is totally fine not to pay anything if you are short of money. if you want to drop something in the hat that’s lovely and it helps me stay viable while giving work away, which is a win all round I think.
It was a small, silvered bottle, long-necked and bulbous below. It was sealed with an aging stopper. Joy drew in a sharp breath at the sight of it.
“Nifty, ain’t it?” Maisy asked. “Whoopsie daisy!”
The bottle seemed to slip from her grip, falling down…
“NAUN!” Joy shouted.
…but deftly caught by Maisy’s other hand.
Maisy chuckled at her trick but Joy wasn’t amused at all.
“Bettermost give that to me,” Joy said, her tone causing Maisy to frown but hand over the bottle immediately. Joy held it firmly in both hands.
“What is it?” Will asked.
“Witch bottle,” Joy answered.
“It belonged to a witch?” Maisy’s eyes grew wide. “I may have shook it about some. It ain’t empty, there’s stuff in there, solid stuff I reckon.”
Joy knew well enow what would be in a witch bottle. She had one of her own, carefully concealed in a secret location.
Blood, horn, root, thorn, tooth, bone, wood, and stone.
A witch bottle was an object of great power. Joy shuddered again when she recalled the moment she’d been fooled into thinking it was going to crash on the ground, breaking open mayhap. That…here…in the light of a full moon…would have spelled moil to be sure.
“What does it do?” Will asked. “I’ve never heard of a witch bottle before.”
“It be said,” Joy answered slowly, “that it protects the witch it belongs to from evil spirits and magical attacks.”
“And the witch lived happily ever after,” Will quipped.
“We should open it!” Maisy suggested.
Joy shook her head. “Naun, we dursn’t. There be part of the witch’s soul in there. If we let it out there’ll be a peck of trouble.”
“Blimey! We should definitely open it!” Maisy looked at the bottle eagerly.
“How did you find this?” Joy asked, unwilling to believe that a witch bottle could be so ill-concealed that a casual coke at the crumbling remnants of a cottage’s foundations would reveal it.
“Valkerie found it,” Maisy answered. “She started digging in a corner, went down all the way up to the tip of her tail, then pulled it out.”
Valkerie, back on Maisy’s shoulder now, dooked, seemingly proud of her excavation skills.
Ferrets! Regular little thieves.
“I wonder who it belonged to,” Will said.
Only one person in Tuckersham it could have belonged to.
Joy closed her eyes briefly, fighting the urge to impress her friends with her knowledge.
Unfortunately, Maisy had come to know her all too well.
“Joy! You know, dontcha?”
“Oh, do tell!” Maisy urged. “I’d tell you if I knew, wouldn’t I?”
“Well that ain’t hard,” Will said. “You hardly ever stop talking.”
Maisy glared at him, before turning to Joy again. “Mates don’t keep secrets, do they?”
Joy felt guilty, harbouring a great many of them as she did. There’d be no harm in it, she reckoned, though this wasn’t the bettermost place to be telling it.
“I reckon I ken whose bottle it is,” she admitted reluctantly.
“I thought so, didn’t I?” Maisy said with satisfaction.
“Whose?” Will asked.
“When Tuckersham was still full of folk, afore they were struck down by the plague, one of them was a wise woman, a skilled healer. Her name was Nan Malone.”
A Guardian of the Wyrde Woods.
“Go on,” Will encouraged Joy.
“Nan Malone lived here all her life and knew her neighbours well. She treated their hurts, helped birth their children, and eased the passage of those at the end of their life’s journeys.”
Joy shook her head. “Nan Malone were a healer. Howsumdever, there were a monster, of sorts.”
“I knew it!” Maisy declared triumphantly.
“A dark shadow of old, naun seen in living memory for so long folk thought twere a storyteller’s fancy. Howsumdever, it returned to the night sky over the Wyrde Woods, swooping down to seize fowl, sheep, even calves. Folk were afeared it might take to their children. Some went to Nan Malone who counselled that it wouldn’t and twere bettermost to leave the creature be…”
“How did she know?” Will asked.
“She were a Wise Woman, weren’t she?” Maisy said.
Joy nodded. “Justly. The Wise Ones pass on the lore of their people, the tales of the Wyrde Woods.”
She was surprised and a little disappointed that neither Maisy or Will connected this with Joy’s own knowledge of the matter. Mostly relieved though, because she had been sworn to secrecy with regard to the lessons she had started to follow. Lessons of the type not taught at the village school.
“What happened next?” Will asked.
“There were folk who refused to believe her. The Stupes, I call them.”
“Stupes?” Maisy asked.
“Folk who don’t see further than the end of their own noses,” Joy explained. “Happy to deny the obvious, happier to preach the unlikely, and happiest to blame others for their own misfortunes.”
“Oh! I know loads of Stupes, don’t I?” Maisy said.
“So do I,” Will added.
“They multiply,” Joy acknowledged.
It was a concern for the Guardians of the Wyrde Woods. Many of them, like Joy’s own mother, continued to live much as they had always done, in sync with the cycle of the seasons. There was a sense though, that the world was changing fast, with an ever-growing number of Stupes whose limited ability to use their own minds was a liability for all. The warring madman in Germany of how easily they could seize control.
She continued, “One of the Stupe leaders decided to hunt the dark shadow and kill it. He took his two sons with him and the three were never seen alive again.”
“Torn into tiny, bloody shreds,” Maisy said. “Weren’t they?”
Joy hesitated. That wasn’t exactly what had happened, but how much should she tell?
And how much do they ken? They’ve already described…
She glanced at the ruined church, acutely aware of the weight of the silvered bottle in her hands, before speaking again, “Other Stupes chose to lay the blame at Nan Malone’s feet. They twisted her words against her. Claimed she had tried to protect the creature…”
“Bastards!” Maisy exclaimed.
“Zackly,” Joy agreed. “Stupe tongues started wagging, gifty blevers that they were. And the lies grew in the telling, as did the number of folk repeating them. Those who dared speak otherwise were mocked and ridiculed. Tmight have been that they didn’t change their minds, but it were certain more and more kept their teeth-traps shut, frit of being the next Stupe target. Afore too long, it were said that Nan Malone had summoned the dark shadow in the first place, that it were her creature. That she were a witch.”
Joy glanced at the bottle before winding up the tragic tale. “It reached a fever point. A mob chased Nan Malone out of her house, then out of Tuckersham. Tossicated on their own power to do such a thing, they set off in pursuit…” Joy’s voice died away and she examined the bottle once more.
Blood, horn, root, thorn…
Maisy said, “They caught her, didn’t they?”
… tooth, bone, wood, and stone.
Joy nodded. “Ere Nan Malone could cross the bridge over the Taunflow. There’s a gurt old chestnut tree there. They hung her by the neck from one of the branches. A few months later Tuckersham was struck by the plague.”
Both Maisy and Will stared at the bottle in silence.
A scritch owl screeched in the distance, and then repeated its call. Joy looked up in the direction of the Taunflow.
She was alarmed to see lights flickering in the distance. Their consistency was impeded by tree trunks but they didn’t have the beguiling quality of Will o’ the Wisps – which Joy knew how to deal with. Instead, the lights were harshly and artificially bright, as well as accompanied by coarse male voices.
Valkerie uttered a warning hiss.
“There’s people coming this way,” Will said.
“Quick, follow me.” Joy led them through the gap in the low wall that separated the path from the churchyard, and then wove a way through the dilapidated headstones and tombs.
“The dead walk among us!” Maisy pronounced in a low voice.
“With these zombie eyes, he rendered her powerless,” Will whispered. “With this zombie grip, he made her perform his every desire!”
“Ha! You would fancy that, wouldn’t you, Brighton-Blighter?” Maisy said.
“Shut up!” Will responded.
“Hush now, the both of you,” Joy told them. She would have preferred not to enter the graveyard, or rather, not to have come this close to the ruined church, but there was some safety in the particular tomb she led her friends to. It was close by a church wall, larger than most, with a heavy slab of stone as lid. The moonlight revealed the chiselled shape of a dragon on it. Ellette Hornsby, one of the Wyrde Woods dragon-slayers, had been laid to rest here. Like Nan Malone, Ellette was counted as one of the Guardians of the Wyrde Woods. It was the safest place in Tuckersham that Joy could conceive of.
They crouched behind the tomb, the cousins no longer needing reminders to be silent as the torch-bearing men were close enow for the children to overhear their discourse. It was mostly grumbling about being sent to lope around at this time of night on behalf of ‘his Lordship’. Daring a peek, Joy recognised them as gamekeepers from nearby Malheur Hall, three men in all, shotguns slung over their shoulders.
Henchmen sent out by Mordecai Malheur to apprehend poachers no doubt, even though any poacher worth his salt would have easily noted their approach and melted away into the night.
Joy relaxed. They’d wait until the men had passed and then call it a night. She hadn’t been sure as to what she’d find at Tuckersham, but Nan Malone’s bottle was ample reward. It was an object of great power and Joy was keen to dive back into her books to discover possible uses for it.
 The witch bottle from Sussex kept at the Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford has a label that says the old lady in Hove who donated it remarked “…and they do say there be a witch in it and if you let un out there it be a peck o’ trouble.”
The moonlit ruins radiated menace. Joy Whitfield’s companions Maisy and Will perceived the grim and ghastly projection as well.
“Blimey,” Maisy said. “That’s a proper set for an H-Rated horror flick.”
“Shoot scenes in that corner, there.” Will agreed. “Béla Lugosi and Boris Karloff would feel right at home.”
Shoot who? Joy thought. Why?
Maisy and Will were both silver screen buffs and embarked on a discussion that Joy couldn’t understand. She had known about the moving pictures before her friends had arrived in the Wyrde Woods because folk somewhen talked about the ones they’d seen in nearby Odesby, but Joy had never been herself. Her friends’ enthusiasm wasn’t contagious. It all sounded horribly confusing, like some of the things they insisted on teaching at the village school in Wolfden.
“I betcha there’s a beating heart underneath the floor in them ruins,” Maisy said.
She sounded oddly pleased about the morbid prospect. To Joy’s discomfort, Maisy wasn’t far off the mark.
How does she ken that? Folk say the silver screen has magic. Mayhap they’re right.
“I can just about see Norman Dryden stalking John Kelt,” Will agreed. He changed his tone to speak melodramatically, “True. Nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I’ve been, and am. But why will you say that I’m mad?”
“Or!” Maisy exulted. “Doctor Vollin keeps his homemade torture machines in there!”
“Doctor Vollin?” Joy asked. “He bain’t from round here, sureleye? Torture machines?”
Will lowered his voice to deliver an ominous line: “It’s more than a hobby.”
Maisy copied his tone. “What a delicious torture. I have done it Bateman!”
“Shadow of a black-feathered, sharp-beaked bird over his shoulder,” Will said.
“Or Murder Legendre’s pet swooping down,” Maisy suggested. “All feathers and razor-like talons.” She followed that with a set of shrill shrieks.
“MWUAHAHA MWHAHAaaa,” Will tried to utter that in a low and deep manner again, but his voice broke and what had started as an eerie guffaw ended in a high-pitched squeak.
Maisy dissolved in merry peals of laughter.
Truly this silver screen is magic, they ken much more than I reckoned.
Joy observed the two briefly. The full moon was fierce enow to stage her friends here at the remnants of what had once been the village of Tuckersham, in the dark depths of the Wyrde Woods.
Maisy, whose diminutive physique in no way demeaned her spirited presence, was dressed in a Western outfit her grandmother had made for her. It resembled that of a cavalry soldier from the moving pictures that Joy’s best friend often praised as the best thing “since London was invented – much better than Brighton, ain’t it?”
The bit about Brighton was a dig at Maisy’s cousin Will. The two were outlanders, Vackies – or evacuees in proper posh English. Maisy from the nation’s capital, Will from the popular seaside resort town on the Sussex coast. The both of them could entertain themselves for hours mocking the other’s hometown, cheerfully arguing about which was bettermost. Joy deemed it silly and childish nonsense. Everyone knew the Wyrde Woods were the bettermost place to be. Tucked away in a forgotten corner of the Weald, far away from the busy madness of cities and towns.
At thirteen, Will was the oldest of the three. Joy followed him at twelve. Maisy claimed to be eleven-and-almost-four-quarters, as well as a rapid “not a bloody six-year old, you glocky nickey” when comments were made about her height.
Joy knew her friend’s sensitivity was about more than just her height, as Maisy was especially galled by the common assumption that her mind must somehow have been stunted by her body’s refusal to grow. Joy loved Maisy for the sheer brilliance of her mind and her fervour to shape life on her own terms – only a chuckleheaded puckstool would assume that Maisy was anything other than bettermost deedy.
Will wore his Air Raid Precaution uniform with pride, a blue overall and utility belt, with a Tommy helmet askance on his mop of blond hair, bearing a white “M” for messenger. It wasn’t painted black, like most ARP helmets, because Will had refused to paint over the fading green of the original. He was extraordinarily proud of the helmet because it was something called a Mark One from The Great War that – he assured anyone who cared to hear (or didn’t for that matter) – was far superior to modern regulation issue.
Maisy made fun of him all-along-of that. Joy didn’t. She understood all too well the power of symbolism. It could transform the reality most townfolk insisted was the only dimension that could possibly exist and warp it right into something wholly else. As such, to Joy’s mind, Will had made it into a powerful token for himself. He had an aptitude for the Wyrd but Joy suspected he was unaware of it. Will might have been born elsewhere, but his exile from Brighton had brought him home. Maskall blood ran old in the Wyrde Woods. His heritage here was as broadly branched as the roots of the oldest oak, shared with Maisy whose mother was a Maskall. For all their boasts about London and Brighton, Joy reckoned they both belonged to the Wyrde Woods in a manner that was beyond their own comprehension as of yet.
Joy herself was barefooted. She wore a simple white summer shift that seemed timeless in style, as if she had stepped out of any previous century that featured human habitation on the British Isles. It was vanity, she supposed, chosen deliberately – symbolically. Less of a choice was her wild and frizzy red hair that never stayed in place no matter how often she brushed it.
Joy’s connections to the Wyrde Woods were older than that of the Maskalls. The Whitfields weren’t just familiar with the land; they were at one with it, all those who had previously been, and those who would one day.
Well, almost all of it.
Pushing awareness of her friends aside, Joy focused on the forbidding crumbling walls that enclosed the roofless remains of Tuckersham’s church. Unlike Maisy and Will, Joy didn’t need her eyes to establish the hostility exuded by the main building and its short, squat tower – not to mention the lopsided head stones and half-sunken tombs in the churchyard atween the main ruins and the broad dirt path the children were on. It was a tension that hung in the air so thick that Joy felt compelled to urgently whisper words of protection for her friends.
This was a place of vile hatred. The ominous doom of the ruins had spilled over into the woods around it, so folk generally didn’t come this way unless they absolutely had to, and then they would hasten their step as they hurried through, fuelled by shivers running along their spines.
“Oh, Gwydion” Joy sighed.
She frowned briefly at the sight of a girl, three or four years older than Joy herself, scurrying along the path. The girl was incongruously dressed in heavy soldier’s boots combined with a short dress patterned with what appeared to be skulls. A troubled girl, Joy perceived, but before she could take a second look at the strangely dressed stranger, the passer-by had vanished into thin air. No shim, this one, but a lost soul nonetheless. An anomaly of the Sight, or a vision from past or future. Joy could usually see them clear enow but to her frustration had no idea how to identify what she was seeing, or what meaning lay behind it.
“So what’s with this place, Joy?” Maisy asked. “Why did we come here? Oh, hullo there.”
Those last words were addressed to a ferret. Valkerie usually accompanied Maisy when the children were out and about on adventure, and now formed a white blur as she scrambled out of a coat pocket to perch on Maisy’s shoulder, half concealed by the girl’s abundant mane of dark hair.
“I was curious,” Joy answered.
She didn’t really have a better answer. Hours of poring over old books and ancient crumbling paper scrolls had led her to believe there might be answers to be found at the ruins of Tuckersham’s church. Joy hadn’t shared this particular quest of hers with the others because she wasn’t sure how much to tell, especially since she was mostly guessing and only uncovering knowledge a puzzle piece at a time. Howsumdever, Maisy’s inquisitive mind was unlikely to be satisfied with the vague justification of curiosity. She knew Joy well enow to know that her friend rarely ever acted out of impulse. Any expedition Joy led them on in the Wyrde Woods had a reason that would have been extensively weighed in Joy’s mind first.
Fortunately, Joy was saved immediate further interrogation by Maisy when Will raised an observation.
“I though you said there was a village here. I can only see the church.”
“It be here alright.” Joy swept an arm around to indicate the ample undergrowth beneath the pale trunks of the birch trees on the other side of the broad dirt path. “The cottages were timbered but dunnamany had stone foundations. Start coking about that undergrowth and you’ll find them soon enow.”
“Enow? Enough, ain’t it?” Maisy commented.
“Enow,” Joy insisted stubbornly. Whatever version of English the other two spoke, Broad Sussex was enow for her.
“So what happened here? Why did people leave?” Will asked.
“They ran away,” Maisy suggested. “From the Martians!”
“Quiddy?” Joy asked. “Martians?”
“Ming the Merciless,” Will said, further confusing her. “Evil ruler of Mongo. I’d run if he pointed his Nitron ray at me.”
“Allied with Azura, the Witch Queen of Mars, weren’t he?” Maisy added. “Oppressor of the poor Clay People.”
“There bain’t naun of that in the Wyrde Woods,” Joy assured them. “The folk here, they never left. Twere the plague. Killed every man, woman, and child in Tuckersham.”
Will shivered. “No wonder it’s such a cheerful place.”
“It’ll be haunted for sure then,” Maisy concluded with evident delight.
“Don’t be silly,” Will objected. “Ghosts don’t exist.”
“Do too!” Maisy retorted.
Joy remained silent on the subject. Will had an aversion to shims. He was by now willing to admit to the possibility of Pooks, but remained insistent on the subject of shims. As far as Maisy was concerned, the more shims the better, a wish just as foolish as Will’s denial. Joy didn’t want to trigger another endless discussion between the cousins on the subject. Not here. Not at night. Shims were best avoided, like many other beings in the Wyrde Woods.
That thought caused Joy to glance at the ruins again, suddenly doubting the wisdom of this visit.
I need to know. Is it still alive? After all these years?
“I’m going to explore,” Maisy announced. “Find me some ghosts, ain’t I?”
She walked towards a patch of undergrowth to push branches and brambles aside with her boot, chatting away to Valkerie who dooked contentedly in reply.
Joy didn’t mind as long as Maisy wasn’t intent on exploring the church – or rather the dark crypt beneath the grass-edged flagstones inside.
A black feathered shadow. Sharp-beaked. Razor-like talons. They missed out on the menacing eyes, glowing red like fierce coals.
Left on his own with Joy, Will immediately reverted to a state of awkwardness. Maisy had claimed this was because he fancied Joy like mad, but Maisy never hesitated to exaggerate morsels of truth into grandiose designs of her own. Then again, when Joy was alone with the boy, he mostwhen stumbled over his words like a drunk staggering from the Raven’s Roost after closing time. He also blushed a lot.
Ever slow and cautious, Joy was digesting it all at her own speed. She was fond enow of Will when he forgot to be awkward around her, less comfortable when he turned into a timmersome grummut, and immensely flattered by his adulation. Before the cousins had arrived, Joy had allwhen been the odd one out, virtually an outcast at school where she was disliked and feared for…
Maisy’s friendship had changed all that, and Will’s feelings – if they were what Maisy said and Joy now strongly suspected – seemed to cement it. Her worry was that he would change his mind when he discovered just how different Joy was.
“So, who’s this Dr Vollin?” she asked, not especially interested but keen to break the ice before the silence between them became unbearable.
Will found his voice easily enow when there was safe ground to cover. “He was an insane surgeon who liked to torture people to death in his cellars. But he died when Bateman threw him into the shrinking room.”
Joy disapproved. “Doctors are supposed to heal folk, naun frit and hurt them.”
Will seemed to take her admonition personally. He shrugged and began to withdraw into awkwardness again.
Joy quickly asked, “Are there many of these mad doctors?”
Her ploy worked because Will started listing a great many.
“…Doctor Zorka who invented devisualizer belts…”
I bain’t much interested in modern city fashions.
“…Doctor Orloff, he dumped people into vats of water and charged them with electricity…”
Strange way to take a bath.
“…Doctor Janos Rukh, he travelled to Africa to find a meteorite composed of Radium X, that made him glow in the dark and drove him bonkers…”
Africa! A far stride from Sussex.
“Doctor Fu Manchu, who was after Genghis Khan’s sword and threw his enemies in crocodile pits.”
I bain’t ever gwoan to see a doctor again, sureleye.
“…Doctor Laurience, who started out researching minds and souls and ended up transferring brains…”
“Like putting the mind of one person into the body of another. It’d be like my mind in Maisy’s body, and Maisy’s mind in mine.”
Joy wasn’t sure what to make of that. Maisy stayed at the Whitfield cottage a lot for sleepovers in Joy’s loft room. What if this Doctor Laurience had put Will’s mind in Maisy? That might be really awkward when it was bedtime.
Joy giggled, briefly stalling Will mid flow, but he recovered.
“Erm, anyhow, he swaps his mind for that of a younger man, cause he…ahem…really fancies Anna Lee who plays Doctor Wyatt, and he reckons as a younger man he’s got a shot with her, but all sorts of things go wrong, with people’s minds prisoners in the wrong bodies and such.”
Joy nodded. She doubted any good could come from such exchanges, no matter who fancied whom, although she was pleased to hear a first mention of a female physician.
“…Doctor Moreau, on the Island of Lost Souls, who changed beasts into people in the House of Pain. Wolfish for the Sayer of the Law, or a panther like Lola. But it all became a mess and the apeman Ouran turned against him! They tied Doctor Moreau to his own operating table and cut him to bits with his surgeon’s tools…”
Joy frowned at the mention of beastlike people, or humanlike beasts. She wondered again just how much the silver screen had revealed to Will and Maisy.
Maisy joined them again. “Dontcha forget Perfessor Bandov from Castle Sinister.”
Will nodded wisely, before providing another incomprehensible explanation, “Mad doctor tries to put girl’s brain into apeman’s head.”
“They’re not all bad though,” Maisy said. “There’s Professor Norton who helped Ray Crash Corrigan stop Unga Khan from taking over Atlantis.”
“Don’t forget Doctor Huer in the Hidden City,” Will exclaimed.
“Or Doctor Zarkov!” Maisy enthused. “Who helped fight Emperor Ming, King Kala of the Shark Men, and King Vultan of the Hawk Men – but Vultan later changed sides. Oi, Joy, look what Valkerie dug up from them foundations.”
“That be nice,” Joy said absentmindedly, not really registering the item Maisy held up. Her mind was a-swirl with a mizmaze of strange names and even stranger storylines. The odd names reminded her of incantations and Joy was trying to discern a pattern in this strange new magic. Further distraction was caused by the tantalising notion of Will on a sleepover. Would it be better to have his mind in Maisy’s body, or Maisy’s mind in his? Joy had never appreciated the complexity a simple sleepover could pose.
Bettermost to naun…
The object in Maisy’s hand caught the moonlight and lit up in a spectacular manner, dazzling all three of them and finally drawing Joy’s full attention.
 The boy (played by Norman Dryden) in The Tell-Tale Heart (1934)
 Doctor Vollin (played by Béla Lugosi) in The Raven (1935)
 Doctor Vollin (played by Béla Lugosi) in The Raven (1935)
 Doctor Vollin (played by Béla Lugosi) in The Raven (1935).