Tag Archives: folklore

Dorset adventures!

I’m delighted to announce that I’m going to be co-writing with David Bridger. Regular readers of the blog will know that I’ve reviewed several of David’s books recently, and am really taken with his work. He’s also read some of my scribbings, and the outcome was a conversation about co-writing. I’m very excited to be working with him, and feeling enthused about where this project is going.

I’m happiest when I’m co-writing. I don’t do well with the author model of disappearing off, alone, for ages, to make something no reader will see for a couple of years. I need my creative processes to be much more interactive, so I thrive when I have someone to write for, and with. It’s also why I put a lot of stuff out into the world – I need the feedback and the sense of involvement.

I expect I’m going to be fairly guarded with the content for this one, but that there will be interesting things to say about the process. One of the many things David and I have in common is that we’re interested in tradition, and in the spirits of places. Which is how we get to a photo of me reading an excellent book of Dorset folklore. Cover by Katherine Soutar, who is a friend of mine. I don’t know Tim Laycock personally, but I’m really enjoying his storytelling style. The History Press, who publish this, are local to me, so they were my go-to starting point.

I spent some time in Dorset as a child, which is an interesting thing to draw on. Those childhood memories have dreamlike qualities. I’ve also read some Thomas Hardy – Tess of the D’urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, neither of which I actually liked. However, in terms of fictional Dorset, Hardy is a force to be reckoned with, so I’m going to dig in and read a few more. He’s also, according to the internet, a very good source for Dorset conjuring traditions. Hold that tantalising thought!


The cursed boyfriend jumper

I first ran into the notion of the cursed boyfriend jumper via a Talis Kimberly song. It’s a rather fascinating bit of modern folklore from the knitting community, and it goes like this: Making your boyfriend a jumper will doom your relationship. Boyfriend jumpers are cursed.

I had a bit of a poke about in this – it’s easy to find information online. Most of what’s out there ponders the practical and psychological reasons why jumper making may not be good for relationships. But, it’s more fun to talk about it as a folkloric curse and so of course that’s what people end up doing.

Having made a massive snuggly jumper for myself, I wanted to make jumpers for my household, which is what got more exploring the cursed boyfriend jumper. It’s a decidedly different thing to be knitting a jumper for someone who wants a jumper and normally wears jumpers – and there’s nothing weird, invasive or unsettling about making clothes for someone you live with. So we picked out the wool together and looked at stitches together and the result is something Tom likes. Imposing a surprise jumper on someone you don’t know well clearly has implications.

I learned a lot making this one. I need to stop assuming I’m bigger than everyone else because it turns out Tom’s chest is bigger than mine and I had to add some little inserts. I shall fettle my pattern accordingly for next time. I confirmed some ideas I’d had about how better to do collars, following on from my first jumper. The stitch is based on fisherman’s rib, but I think I was doing it wrong, technically! I really like the effect though, so, not a problem.

It turns out that the idea of a row by row, stitch by stitch set of knitting instructions terrifies me. But, a few broad theories of jumper and I’m happy to crack on with it. There are practical implications to this as well. Much of the body of this jumper was knitted at the Gloucester Steampunk Winter Convivial, while the sleeves were knitted the following weekend at Steampunks in Space. I’m finding that crafting at events helps me stay calm in face of what can otherwise be sensory overload, but there is no way I could manage a stall while following a detailed pattern.


A changeling story

The changelings of folklore are not long lived. They are only bundles of leaves and twigs, rocks and mud lumped together and enchanted to resemble a child. Their job is to distract the family for a day or two after the baby has been stolen. The changeling is supposed to die, the family is supposed to mourn the death in all innocence. 

There are those of us who never fit, never belong. The changeling story is a comforting fiction. The real baby, the one they wanted and could have loved, was kidnapped by fairies. You are what was left instead. You are a fairy child, and you belong somewhere else. The ache in your heart is a longing for that more magical place and one day, they will come for you, one day you will go back. There is a way for your heart to be whole and for your life to make sense. It’s not authentic folklore, but it is the kind of story that can keep a person alive.

Then there are the people like me. The ones who should not have lived and yet somehow did. Gazing anxiously at every reflection, certain that other people must surely be able to see the mud and twigs under the surface. This human-seeming skin has stretched too far and is so thin, one day the sticks will poke through it. Perhaps it will be a relief when it finally breaks open and everyone else can see that I was never a real person.

We were never supposed to live this long. We aren’t actual people. Nor are we fabulous magical fairy children waiting to go home. We are mud and sticks, conjured to pass as a baby, and somehow we are not dead yet. This isn’t folklore either. There are no traditional stories about changelings who do not die. But, we know what we are. 

Forgive me if I am terrible. I was not made to be anything good. There is only rot and death on the inside, only broken things. I was not supposed to exist like this. I cannot help it.

(Art by Dr Abbey. This one is a standalone and does not relate to any specific project).


Weep, Woman, Weep – a review

Weep, Woman, Weep: A Gothic Fairytale about Ancestral Hauntings by [Maria DeBlassie]

Weep, Woman, Weep is a gothic fairytale by Maria DeBlassie, and I loved it. It’s a novella set in New Mexico, written in a first person voice with a narrator who is clear that you’re going to hear her version of events. It’s a really strong narration voice, and I identified to a considerable degree with the main character. Mercy is an outsider, her life is full of magic and much of that magic is dangerous to her. She’s not someone who performs femininity, and it meant a lot to me because it’s so rare to see that.

At the same time there are many things in this story that are outside of my experience. I know something about generational trauma, but I have no experience of dealing with it in the context of racism. It was a really educational read for me on that score.

You can read this as a fairytale metaphor, about overcoming trauma and claiming your own power. I read it as magical realism and that also entirely works, you can step into the reality of this story on whatever terms make sense to you. It is steeped in La Llorona folklore. You could stand outside of that as a reader and see it as the beliefs of the main character, or you can enter into it as the reality she is in.

Happily the story taps into one of my current obsessions – how we tackle desertification and bring life back to damaged landscapes. I love stories where there’s a strong sense of place, and I love reading about characters who are deeply involved with their landscapes and this story is great on that score. The relationship between healing people and healing the land is explicit. It’s also a story about healing and change within a community – exploring the collective and how that relates to the individual. Part of what’s damaging Mercy is what’s damaging her community as a whole – she can’t heal unless her community also heals.

This is a beautifully written, affirming and emotionally rich sort of story. I know some reviewers have found it to be a bit of a weepy but I found it uplifting – your mileage may vary. There’s a lot of emotional truth here, and I think anyone who has ever struggled to find their place in the world will find it a resonant read.

Heartily recommended.

You can find the book on Amazon – https://www.amazon.com/Weep-Woman-Fairytale-Ancestral-Hauntings-ebook/dp/B09CV9P9SH


All That Glitters – a review

All That Glitters by Halo Quin is a heady mix of poetry and prose, folklore and personal insight. This is a book of re-enchantment. Halo is steeped in folklore and has a powerful personal relationship with the wild and the natural world. At the same time there’s a sweetness to her work, and warmth in it.

It’s the sort of book I wish I’d had in my teens. These are words to cut through the loneliness of being an odd creature, a misfit, a dweller at the margins. I think if you’re carrying a lost child inside you, this book may touch that part of you. I felt it keenly. I remembered that youthful hunger for magic and enchantment, and how hard it is to hang on to a sense of wonder and possibility when there is no obvious place in the world for that part of your soul.

Halo is, I think, one of those rare souls whose child self wasn’t tamed or broken, and who carries her wildness inside her. If you were the sort of child who desperately wanted to be kidnapped by fairies, this book is for you.

More here – https://herbarybooks.com/product/all-that-glitters/


Fiction from Folklore

Guest post by Alys West

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. 

Bio:

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’


Emi, by Craig Hallam

Today I have the happiness of bringing you an excerpt from Craig Hallam’s latest book, Emi.

Emi is a Studio Ghibli-inspired dark fantasy about humanity and morality with Japanese folklore imagery.

 

Meetings

The grass had decided to become everything it could be, growing until only the barn’s roof was visible above the swaying fronds. Slates had slipped, making wounds that exposed wooden ribs beneath. In the eaves, a dried bird’s nest rattled in the breeze.

Christopher stood at the foot of the hill, looking up at the sagging roof. Drifting toward the dilapidated marvel, his progress could be seen as a shifting wake in the tall grass, a shark splitting water.

Skirting the barn’s perimeter, he swept hair the colour of dirty butter from his eyes. Cracks and creases in the stonework grinned and grimaced. The masonry sprouted vibrant mosses and the odd weed-flower. Some stones lay on the ground, some shards of broken slate. He stood at a distance for a while, looking up and down the walls, back the way he’d come, across fields where the wind made eddies in the wild wheat that chased like swallows. He looked to the horizon simply because his eye fell there, made from a spine of hilltops, and saw beyond them to the empty prairies and meadows and clear green rivers he’d already traversed, everything silent and blooming and undisturbed.

He circled back around to the barn’s doors.

They hung askew, holes gaping between mouldered planks. The chain, so badly rusted that its links were immovable, snapped in Christopher’s bare hands. Where it had lain across the door, a deep red grin scarred the wood.

The scent of ancient hay and animal dung still remained inside. Light bled through slats of the boarded window in two glistening shafts. If he still breathed, Christopher would have caught his breath.

One shaft of light came to rest on a pair of mottled legs, curled beneath a summer dress of lemon and white. It was stiff with dirt, torn and frayed at the embroidered hem. A pair of dainty white socks had yellowed with age above pretty, dust-covered shoes. The other beam caressed the crown of a bowed head, blonde locks weaving their way like a golden briar about the child’s head.

Christopher tried to speak but only released a squeak of desiccated vocal chords. His unused tongue made a dry clack between receding gums.

“Ch-h-hello,” he managed, in a dry rasp.

The small legs retreated into the dark. The sound of a chain dragging in dirt as the little dead girl stepped forward, uncertain in what must have been her first steps in an age. Reaching the extent of her chain, wrapped thrice around her tiny waist, the girl jerked backward and almost off balance, waving her arms to stay upright. By the light from the broken doorway Christopher could see she was seven, maybe eight years old, and had been for a long time. Her leather t-bar shoes pointed slightly toward each other at the toes. Her hands hung slack on the apron of her dress. Her right sleeve was a tatter, the thin bicep beneath shredded.

Christopher’s hand strayed to his stomach, a spot on his threadbare dungarees where the rubbing had worn the denim white.

“Your name.” Christopher forced the sounds from his mouth, kneeling to her.

The girl lifted her head, hair plastered across her ashen forehead in some long forgotten fever. Christopher reached out to brush it aside, a reflex he didn’t realise he’d forgotten until it was remembered. Her eyes were the yellow of the Sickness. The colour of his own.

“Your name?” he asked again, his voice becoming softer with the practice, returning to its old disarming whisper.

When she opened her mouth, a moth battered its way from her lips and escaped through the wounded roof.

“Emi,” crackled the girl. “My name is Emi.”

 

Her Mummy and Daddy had put her there to keep her safe, and they were coming back. So, Emi waited. She waited until Christopher came and yanked her chain from the wall as if it were buried in sand, not stone. She waited until the world fell quiet outside, until the Sickness receded, taking most memories that she had with it. Except that Mummy and Daddy were coming back. That, she knew.

With the child free to roam as she liked, Christopher set off once more on his eternal pilgrimage without destination or purpose. The brief wonder of finding her forgotten.

Emi wandered to and fro in his wake, winding across the old track, taking in the colour of the bushes and flowers, watching insects flit and fly. Not much had survived, but the insects had.

“Where are we going?” Emi asked.

Christopher’s spine snapped to attention at the sound of her voice. He spun around.

She was still there.

Christopher had to think about his answer.

“Nowhere in particular,” he said.

“Oh,” said Emi, regarding a wild hedgerow at the roadside. Entangled in the branches were delicate white flowers on thin vines that curled like filigree. Without a thought, she reached out to pluck one.

Christopher’s hand lashed out, gripping her wrist tight.

“Don’t touch that,” he said with little urgency.

Still in his steel grasp, Emi asked why.

“It’ll kill you.”

Looking at the way his white knuckles enveloped the girl’s forearm, a memory surfaced to gather air and then submerged once more, leaving only the flash of a tail. Christopher drew back his hand to stare at it. This was turning into an odd day.

“We’re already dead,” pressed Emi. She shifted the chain that still wrapped her waist, flecks of red drifting down to stain her dress a little more.

Christopher was admiring his hand.

“It’ll kill you more.”

He walked away.

Emi didn’t move. Her little head tipped to the side. The flowers were so pretty, the petals so delicate.

“Christopher?”

The sound of his name on her tiny lips seemed wrong to him. At first, he didn’t respond. But there was something, something he should do, an itch to scratch. He should answer.

“Yes?”

“Is everyone dead?”

Christopher stopped in the track, but didn’t turn.

“Yes.”

“Are Mum and Dad dead?”

“Yes.”

“Oh.”

A small part of him expected tears, or at least another question. He heard the sound of Emi’s tiny shoes in the dirt, and felt her fragile hand slip into his own.

“We should go then,” she said.

 

(Out in April)


Southern Cunning – folklore and living tradition

Aaron Oberon is the author of Southern Cunning – a book about folkloric witchcraft in the Southern States of America. I asked him some questions about his book and the traditions he’s working with, which he has answered below…

Can you give me a flavour of southern states folklore? What’s unique to the area?

Most of our folklore directly deals with the atrocities that have happened in the South. Slavery, racism, and genocide are all seeped into the soil and stories. Human evil is one of the biggest reoccurring themes throughout Southern folklore, and while some folks try to ignore the continuation of racism and oppression around them these stories speak volumes. There’s a reason the genre of “Southern Gothic” exists, because there is a macabre cast to most of our folklore. There’s a plant that can be found all throughout the more humid southern locations called “Spanish Moss” and in Savanah, Georgia folks say it won’t grow anywhere that innocent blood was spilled. Even the tales we tell about plants remind us of human atrocity. There is also an intense focus on the community and what it means to be a part of the community. The breaking of taboos, the inversion of norms, and the process of “othering” those that live outside of what the community considers correct. More specifically, living life as a Christian or a Non-Christian, and the perceived immorality of being Non-Christian. When witches, the quintessential Non-Christians, appear in folklore they are often marginalized and living on the fringes of their communities. Witch stories can be some of the most interesting because they often directly challenge commonly held beliefs in southern culture. When the witch come knocking to borrow milk you have two choices. You can stand by the value of “Southern Hospitality” and help out your neighbor in which case the witch can now curse you because she has something of yours. Or you can deny her the milk because of who she is, in which case she curses you for not helping her. So which do you choose? There’s no right answer, because the societal constraints shouldn’t be there to begin with. That the beauty of Southern folklore, it deals with the dark and oppressive, it forces you to address these issues of culture and discrimination, but it never gives you an answer. That’s your job to figure out.

How does folklore impact on witchcraft traditions in the south?

From a personal perspective, you can’t look towards these stories and come out the other side thinking the world is sunshine and rainbows. You have to face the atrocities that define the place where you live, and then how do you take this reflection and make something of it. You’ve read clear as day how horrible things are now what are you going to do about it? I can’t speak for how folklore is effecting witchcraft throughout the entire South, but I know that for me it’s been a process of taking action. The magic seen throughout Southern folklore is active, it clearly accomplishes a goal, and often times it seeks to right a wrong. Southern folklore demonstrates not just atrocity, but personal agency, and the impact that personal choices make on the world. Which to me is witchcraft at its core, when you take action in your craft you make an impact on the world at large.

 

What do you find exciting about this as a living tradition?

The biggest thing about a living practice is knowing one day it is going to change and that just because something is working for you now doesn’t mean you have to do that same exact thing for the rest of your journey. Witchcraft, folklore, and human beings are all constantly changing and adapting. So when I look at my practice and realize that something no longer fits, I’m able to acknowledge what it brought into my life in the past, and honor that while finding something that fits better for the now.

What does bioregionalism mean to you?

That as person you are celebrating the natural environment around you in the here and now. Bioregionalism has helped me appreciate my home in a way that has truly changed my life. Spiritually its meant that I am more focused on the local spirits, local stories, and local people around me rather than looking at European models of magic and trying to make that work for me when it hasn’t. On a personal level, I always hated the South.

Tell me about the book…

Southern Cunning is a look at how to approach folklore as an informant for witchcraft. It originally started out as a journal I was writing while I went through books of American folklore and started seeing if there was a way to make this applicable to my practice. It turned out to be a major undertaking, one that changed my perspective on what witchcraft is and what it can be. A good chunk of the book focuses on a specific collection of folklore called “The Silver Bullet”, and I chose this book because of all the collections I went through Silver Bullet was the only one focused completely on witches and the details of their practices. The rest of the book is dedicated to the things that make the South what it is from the cultures in the South, its history, religion, and the land itself. My hope with Southern Cunning is that it’s accessible, fun, and gets the wheels turning for the reader. The best compliment I’ve received has been someone telling me “This inspired me to look into my local folklore and work that into my practice”.

 

Find out more about the book here – https://www.johnhuntpublishing.com/moon-books/our-books/southern-cunning 


Family traditions

How you present something has considerable impact on how people understand it. If you want something to sound like tradition, and like authentic folklore, it pays to mention Granny when framing it. I’ve noticed in Twitter’s Folklore Thursday that anything framed by the idea that it came from Granny is seldom questioned. I’ve experimented with this as well – when we talk about Yule Badger traditions and reference what Granny said, no one queries it. You are allowed to make folklore up so long as you aren’t honest about that. Talk about working with folklore and you can get into all kinds of trouble…

(Some of the things in that piece, my grandmother did say. Some she didn’t. There is no way anyone else can tell what’s what.)

 

This video was originally created for Patreon – I do one a month there, alongside a poem, a book excerpt and a newsletter. There’s also a level where I post things to people… https://www.patreon.com/NimueB if you’d like to support me.


Playing with Folklore

One of the things I like to do with the Hopeless Maine graphic novel series, is play with folklore. Here’s an example- the entirely traditional Mari Lwyds in a clearly non-traditional setting.

The Welsh Mari Lwyd tradition involves exactly the kit you see with horses skulls on poles and trailing costumes to cover the person holding the pole. You then go to houses and/or pubs for riddling fights.

When people migrate, they take their culture, folklore and beliefs with them. How that plays out can vary – it can mean that sometimes what the disaspora hold is an older form of the tradition than what develops elsewhere. People away from home can be more focused on keeping their traditions unchanged. Sometimes the opposite happens, and the tradition is influenced by what else is around, or evolves to suit the circumstances. Clearly, both trajectories are equally valid.

Playing with folklore in this way gives me scope to make things up – you can read what happens to Mari Lwyds on Hopeless Maine here – https://hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com/2019/05/03/the-hopeless-mari-lwyd/

And doing this in turn gives me a chance to talk about folklore as a process without getting too bogged down in the academic side of things, which is not my natural habitat.

More about the latest volume of Hopeless Maine here – http://www.slothcomics.co.uk/news/hopeless-maine-3-victims-is-released-in-june

Art in this blog mostly by Tom Brown and a bit by me.