Mandragora swallows the moon

006

As promised, here are the notes on Storylandia 15: Collected Stories By Julie Travis:

From The Bones

As a child many family holidays were spent hunting for fossils on the beaches at Lyme Regis in Dorset. We have evidence of the ancient past all around us but fossils gave me an amazing connection to it. Later on, I became more interested in human history, more specifically the spiritual aspects of the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages. These days I spend a lot of time at sacred sites and this story came from all of these influences. I’m somewhat uncomfortable with the ethics of digging up bodies and displaying them in museums and suchlike (although I have been to see Lindow Man and other bog bodies in the British Museum); does our demand for knowledge make it acceptable to disturb such places? There is a link here, I think, with our arrogance in extracting oil and minerals from the ground without worrying about the consequences, both for ourselves and for the Earth – to which we’re connected, whether we like it or not.

Grave Goods

More archaeology! Early burials would leave a few items – or, in the case of a high-status grave, almost a roomful of items – with the deceased, for them to take to the Otherworld. We don’t do that any more (at least in Western European culture) but perhaps we should. It might be of great use to take a few things with us wherever we go. I wanted to write a story that was definitely horror rather than dark fantasy and it was more or less drafted in three days. One of the characters was heavily inspired by Marlow Moss, a Modernist artist who lived in Lamorna, West Cornwall, in the mid 20th century.

Scar Tissue

Along with Pieces (Urban Occult, 2013), this story’s set in the gay community in Hackney/Stoke Newington in London, a scene I was immersed in for a few years in the 1990s. There were some terribly damaged women out there, mostly as a result of abuse in early life and this is based on some of them. It is not a failure to be mentally ill or damaged, but to use these things as leverage over other people’s lives is, in my view, criminal.

Theophany

This is a continuation, of sorts, of Darkworlds (Premonitions: Causes For Alarm, 2008) but not a ‘part 2’ – each story is completely separate and stands on its own (to make sure this was the case I didn’t mention Darkworlds to Ginger Mayerson, Storylandia’s editor, so that she could be objective when she read Theophany). Darkworlds was begun in London and finished in Lelant, Cornwall, where I lived when I first moved down here, and marked a far deeper, layered form of writing.

Widdershins

My favourite word. What happens when you walk anti-clockwise – ‘the wrong way’ – around a church? What happens when you live an unconventional life? The church and its location are based on St Bega, a small church that stands beside Bassingthwaite Lake in Cumbria. This is the first story I wrote after my mother’s passing. Everything is a time machine.

In an update on other work: The Man Who Builds The Ruins will not be appearing in the Dreams From The Witch House anthology. It hasn’t been rejected – I found out second hand what the book’s contents are and my story wasn’t listed. As yet, no one involved with the book has had the courtesy to let me know. I wish the anthology well and I intend getting hold of a copy, but I’m not impressed with the way the writers have been treated. Along with the blog writers who I’ve supported for years but who couldn’t be bothered to reply to a polite email asking if they’d be interested in a copy SL 15 for possible review, the wheat is certainly being sorted from the chaff as regards professionalism.

I’m working on two other stories: Pig Iron is close to a finished first draft. As soon as it’s done, I’ll do the final tweaks needed on The Hidden to finish it.

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I came from dust, I shall return to dust

Penzance graveyard

From The Bones is now in its third draft and becoming more cohesive. The changes I’d needed to make to the story – altering a character’s gender for some balance and the addition of a hint of the central idea of the story early on (it not being the type of tale that needs a major twist at the end, more a slow revelation) – are helping to make it what it’s meant to be. Isn’t that the meaning of ‘good art’? To get across to the reader the point of it all; they may not like what that point is, but if it’s there, then the job is done. One of the points of the story, the source of conflict, perhaps, is the clash of science and academia against spiritual beliefs and fairy tales (many of which may have their roots in real events anyway). This has been done, no doubt, in many stories (M R James’ O Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad springs immediately to mind) but I’m approaching this from a different angle, I think: science and spirituality can happily coexist. The more I learn about the Universe, for instance, the more weight my spiritual interests (such as in Cosmic Geomancy) seem to hold. But the other question that From The Bones intends to ask is the one that archaeology always brings up for me: what gives us the right to dig up ancient graves and burial places, to steal bones and grave goods? It’s the same discomfort I feel when I see birds, seals and polar bears trapped or sedated and tagged. It’s always claimed to be about extending knowledge and, with the latter especially, about conservation issues, but the human obsession with interfering grates, to say the least. And who knows what consequences there may be?

For the first time that I can remember, I have no stories being read or considered by editors. There are various reasons for this – one story is over 14,000 words long and so too big for most magazines and anthologies, another is waiting for submissions to open for a new horror anthology, edited by Ellen Datlow, and (in an update to the above) From The Bones may actually be finished but I need to put it aside for a while before I’m sure – but it’s an odd situation to be in. Not unpleasant, I’d add; a pause in waiting for responses is not a bad thing and perhaps helping me ensure that I’m writing for myself. Publication – the possible pleasing of other people (and I do want people to like and appreciate my work) – should always come second to being true to what I’m doing.

In other news, I happened to mention on another website (Bristol-based, for Queers, Drag Queens/Kings and general weirdos) that I’d seen the documentary She’s Real, Worse Than Queer, directed by Lucy Thane, a British woman living in San Francisco in the mid-1990s, and that I had some involvement in the London Queercore scene. The website has expressed interest in doing an interview with me, so I’ll be putting some notes together about that time. Luckily it’s a period that I have a lot of documentation on and I knew and interviewed a fair few of the major players, some more than once. It would be good to pull these things together and pass these stories – our history – on, so I’m looking forward to the interview.

Travelling without moving

St Michael's Mount

St Michael’s Mount

Anachron Press’ horror anthology Urban Occult is currently at the copy-editing stage, with publication now set for March. I’ve finished working on the proof of my story for it (Pieces) and it’s back with editor Colin Barnes for the final okay.

After a few quiet weeks I’m back working on From The Bones. I now have the rest of the story sketched out and while the tone feels light compared with most of what I write, I don’t know if it will be perceived by others that way. There’s certainly less of a sense of evil in this one – I’d call it a fantastic (or fantastique, which might be more accurate) modern fairy tale. I did do a small experiment with the story this week – I tried writing with the radio on in the background. I usually write with music playing or in complete silence (apart from the gulls screeching outside the window) and I wondered if any music would do. An hour’s work resulted in a couple of badly constructed paragraphs and a lot of frustration. In contrast, I put on Coil’s Astral Disaster (an expensive purchase, but, given the magickal nature of the recording [deep underground in London during Samhain 1998] and of the musick, well worth it) yesterday and the story just flooded out. Perhaps not hugely surprising results but it did confirm how certain music stretches the mind while others stunt it.

Astral Disaster is a strange album, though, even for Coil, and it received some mixed reviews on release (or its two releases: first on vinyl and then on cd). From first listening I had mental images of South America, a continent I’ve never visited, and I didn’t know why until I saw a documentary on a pre-Inca civilisation in Peru; it was clear to me that AD would have provided a perfect accompanyment to the ancient cliffside burial chambers, incredible feats of architecture and huge sacred sites on mountain plateaux.

JT, Penwith, 20 January 2013.

If it goes any faster there’ll be an astral disaster

Rough Tor with Showery Tor in the foreground, Cornwall

Tales From The River Vol 2 has sadly not yet been published, despite its anticipated release date of 22 September. Enquires are being made as to when the anthology will be available. Volume 1, I’m told, contains some extremely good stories, so I’m being patient. Storylandia 7 is now on sale, both in physical and Kindle formats. Initial feedback is very positive (although I’ve yet to see the magazine myself) – The Falling Man has been compared to Edgar Allan Poe’s stories, which is a huge compliment. I suppose its setting does lend itself to the Gothic horror I read as a child, although that was not my conscious intention when I was writing it. I’ve had a proper look through Angel Wing, which must be fifteen or more years old, and have found two useable paragraphs; the ending may prove to be a suitable beginning to what is probably going to be a horror-archaeology story. This is something I know M R James specialised in, and I won’t pretend to be anywhere near his academic breeding (despite my obsession with musty, old reference books!). More a modern, working-class take on a profession which has become a little more accessible since James’ day. And I’m thinking of doing a couple of interviews (for what or whom I don’t yet know), the first in many years. The interviewees – an artist and an ambient musician – haven’t yet been approached and may well decline, but I feel each has a lot worth sharing. I was tempted to interview Coil back in 2002 and felt somehow not worthy. The chance of course has now gone forever and I don’t want to make the same mistake again.

Someone recently asked me whether my totemic animal was the tiger, after seeing my first tattoo (a colourful Chinese tiger) and I had to admit that it wasn’t – the tattoo was picked instinctively, and began life as a panther before Kevin the tattooist added the stripes and colours freehand. It would seem to me, that the starling would fit the bill of totemic animal: several incredibly powerful dreams involving huge flocks of the bird would point to this. Two dreams on consecutive nights, however, have pointed in a different direction; after seeing a documentary about how the asteroids that hit Earth millions of years ago possibly contained ice, and therefore brought water – life – to the planet, the connection to the stars that Cosmic Geomancers believe in makes even more sense to me. The first dream had me in a wood, looking across at the moon, which was so close to the Earth that I could see it in detail as it rotated. I was lifted above the trees and began to circle around them, and was offered the Universe to travel around. This – which I assumed was Death – was too huge a prospect and I refused and was lowered to the ground. The next night I was asked the same question. More prepared, I accepted, and hurtled towards the stars at incredible speed. Is this what awaits me when I die? I hope so.

Julie Travis, West Penwith, Autumn Equinox 2012 CE

Wounded Souls

I nearly didn’t watch Mysteries of the Vampire Skeletons, part of Channel 5’s Revealed series, basically because it was on Channel 5 and I didn’t think it warranted attention, but after catching the first few minutes I was intrigued enough to continue. The main focus was on archaeological digs in Ireland that had uncovered some unusual skeletons with large stones forced into their mouths or, in one case, the legs broken and twisted around a huge rock. The skeletons were dated to be from around 500 – 600 CE (Current Era, or AD, if you’re of that persuasion). Which was something new to the archaeologists. Folklore evolves over time and tends to have roots as far back as humankind, but this seems to be the earliest evidence of protection against vampires.

Was it that most, if not all burials were done in this way at this period in time, or was it that the individuals were specifically suspected of being the kind to become vampires? The programme didn’t answer that question, but it gave some explanations of classic vampire mythology. For instance, most people wouldn’t know how long a corpse takes to decompose, and what the various stages are. Digging up someone who’d been dead for a few months would therefore have caused further terror to folk who were probably frightened enough as it was – they may well have looked as fresh as when they went in the grave and the breakdown of the stomach would’ve caused blood to pour from the mouth – which would look like a vampire having had a recent feed. Also, of course, opening up a corpse to take out the heart (for burning) was likely to make gas escape, hence the idea that a corpse sighed or growled upon being cut. In times of more basic medical knowledge, premature burial was reasonably common, which meant that some did literally rise from the grave. Or were exhumed and found to be dead, but looking as if a terrible spirit had possessed them in the casket. And finally, there were illnesses and conditions that made people extremely sensitive to sunlight and tightened the skin to give an enduring youthful appearance. All very feasible. However, the books I’ve read (most recently The Vampire in Europe by Father Montague Summers, written in the first half of the 20th century) show how deep seated these beliefs were over the whole of the continent. Summers’ book has case after case where the existence of vampires is completely accepted as fact. And rituals against the dead rising from the grave as a vampire still take place in parts of rural Romania, (although apparently city dwellers find this quite embarrassing and backwards). It’s something that just hasn’t gone away and may never disappear, either from Europe or the rest of the world; each continent has its own version of the belief.

What’s made me (fairly!) hopeful that these creatures don’t exist is the oft-repeated assertion that those with a ‘difference’ of some kind, be it ginger hair, a disfigurement or being foreign, were said to be likely to become vampires after death. Fear of the ‘other’ is one of human nature’s nastier sides, which constantly needs to be battled with education and communication. But I have respect for these legends – there’s usually a grain of truth in them somewhere. I’ve no doubt that many strange things, both physical and spiritual, walk the Earth, but I’m not convinced that vampires, in the classic sense, are one of them. Although we’ve all met people who thrive by sucking the life out of others!

Elizabeth, resting.

But ghosts are a different matter. I’ve always loved ghost stories and like any decent child was frightened of graveyards, but I’ve long since found cemeteries to be places of peace and calm, as resting places should be. Life is lived outside of them, and so, if a ghost is a recording of an event replayed over and over again, seen by the living if they’re tuned in to the right frequency, or a more coherent, trapped spirit interacting with the world of the living, it makes sense for them to do so in the places they lived and died.

I’ve never seen a ghost, but I have had many experiences that have left me in no doubt that a ghost has been present. The house I spent most of my childhood in was haunted. I’ll state that as fact, because I can’t find any other explanation for how the place was, the happiness I felt when we moved out and the nightmares I had for years afterwards. From the age of six months to around 17 I lived with my family in Ruislip Manor, on the far north-western reaches of London Underground’s Metropolitan Line. It was a small, terraced 1930s house with a long back garden and narrow alleyways behind and around the blocks of houses. I don’t know anything of the house’s former inhabitants or the plot the house was built on. What I do know was that it was an extremely frightening place. Many times at night I heard footsteps on the stairs that stopped at the top of the landing. One night I looked up and saw my bedroom door open; a shadow came in and touched the end of my bed. I screamed and it dissolved before my parents could come rushing in. I heard whispering right outside my window (I was on the first floor) and had recurring dreams of a pale, white coach and horses driving at speed along the alleyway and into our garden. On one day, my brother, sister and I were in the front room and heard someone coming down the stairs. The connecting door’s handle was pressed down, as if someone on the other side was about to open it. Then – nothing. When we eventually had the nerve to look, no one was there and everyone who was in the house was accounted for downstairs. It was not a happy house – and I always got the impression that it was the skin and bones of the house itself that was unquiet, rather than something separate inside.

The next odd event occurred when I was about 17 or 18 and was alone in a room in a squatted house, listening to music and lying on a bare mattress on the floor. The top corner of the mattress suddenly began moving up and down, as if someone had grabbed it and was violently yanking it. I watched it for a while, then reached out and turned the music off, as I thought the vibrations might be causing it. The violent movement continued. I didn’t see anything or anyone, didn’t feel a presence of any kind, it was just a physical manifestation. Eventually it stopped and I never found any rational explanation for what happened.

Perhaps ten or so years ago I visited a notorious gay bar in King’s Cross, north London. At the time a couple of friends worked in the basement bar, so I went along one Saturday night to see them. I sat for a while at the side of the room and watched the dancers. Completely sober, I should add! I was suddenly aware of a horrible presence. Something was seeping out of the walls of the basement. All I can say is that it felt like Death was there. It surrounded the dance floor and moved in. I got the feeling that it was centring on one man, who appeared unaware of anything going on. Perhaps it was just that he was in the middle of the room. It felt appalling and I had to leave. Afterwards I spoke to one of my bar worker friends and she said the basement did have a reputation for being haunted. Weird stuff, like glasses jumping off shelves, happened there. She’d heard that a customer had died in one of the little cubby holes while cavorting. Because drugs and dodgy sex was involved, the body was carried to the upstairs bar and propped in a corner, so as to be found in a more ‘innocent’ position. How much of this was true was unknown. I seem to remember going back to the basement bar but not having anything untoward happen.

My most recent experience was at Minions in Cornwall, which I’ve written about previously (30 August 2011). Coincidentally, (pah!), just as I was writing this piece, I found a postscript in the back of Barbara Erskine’s novel Daughters of Fire. Called Why Ghosts?, it’s part of an address given by Meryn Jones to the annual meeting of the Celtic Society (no year is given). The piece sums up Celtic belief in what happens to the soul after death, which just about word for word mirrors my own beliefs and goes on to describe ghosts thus: “The choices the soul makes can leave it unhappy. The life it has led may not have been full of glory. It may have ended in anger, sorrow, unfulfillment. Some will go for another crack of the whip in a new lifetime. But others haunt the scenes of their last life. And in doing so they can grow frustrated and angry because they find that people on the whole cannot see or hear them…” More than just recordings, then? I remain open-minded.

“Delicia Jangle Pop!”

A track from my sister’s old band A Strange Desire has popped up on YouTube, and I’m shamelessly linking to it. It’s a great pop song, recorded in 1987 in the wake of The Smiths. I find a lot of the pop groups from that time rather twee but I liked ASD. They played The Timebox a few times, a pub in Chalk Farm (north London) that showcased a lot of such bands. There’s a compilation album around somewhere.

I was thinking of going to Bosiliak Barrow yesterday. It’s a beautiful little Scillonian type chambered cairn. There’s some excavation work going on on nearby settlements, and yesterday was an open day. I was nearby at Lanyon Quoit and saw a group of people around the cairn but didn’t join them. When the vegetation dies down (or gets ripped out by the coming storm) I’ll return for a proper look. These places are always better when they’re quiet, although some archaeologicial information would have been interesting.

Lanyon Quoit

Meanwhile, no pop songs for me as I write. Instead, some Daniel O’Sullivan wierdness, or the story will just be too happy.

Story accepted/Julian Cope and The Modern Antiquarian

Cross Bound has been accepted by Aphelionan American webzine, for their next issue. I’m assuming that to be October 2011 but have asked for confirmation. This is great news for several reasons. I seem to have got a real momentum going which I’m determined to continue. Having five stories published during the course of a year is probably no great shakes to some writers but for me it’s a real achievement. Better access to the Internet has certainly helped me find suitable magazines/outlets, and I’ve been lucky in that the two pieces I had in Kimota magazine were re-printed in the anthology, but I also feel I’m in a better frame of mind for writing. I’d placed just about all my completed short stories when I relocated to Cornwall (and was finishing off Darkworlds) and spent years writing two novels and the initial chapters of a book on punk rock ‘n’ roll band Green Day. When that fell through I returned to the short story. It is not, as someone insisted to me the other day, a way of ‘working up to writing novels’! It is a completely different art form. I wrote the two novels because that was the only way of telling those stories. Since then I have finished one novelette (Cross Bound), one short story (The Ferocious Night – with another editor as I write), have nearly completed another long short story (The Falling Man) and have sketched out a new, more concise horror short, (working title Pieces) that had me crawling out of bed the other morning to make notes on it before it disappeared from my sleepy head. I’m aiming to have this one in at under 5,000 words, mostly because I think that’s all I’ll need to tell the story but also because I want to make sure I can still do such a thing. I’m incredibly relieved to know that my more recent, post-novel, work still cuts it. Cross Bound is very different to everything else I’ve done – as I’ve said before, it’s definitely dark fantasy rather than having a crossover with horror. Some of the references to witchcraft and witch hunts come from the Pendle witch trials of the early 17th century, with bits from German witch hunts of the same era, so thanks to R. Hart’s Witchcraft and The Encyclopaedia of Witchcraft and Demonology for essential details. Also to Coil’s Musick To Play In The Dark Vol 2, which has provided the soundtrack to the writing. Coincidentally (if you believe in such things) there was a programme on BBC4 a few weeks back about the Pendle witch trials, which was very well done, with some animation creeping over the brooding Lancashire hills and Simon Armitage walking around in the mizzle.

Holy well, St Agnes, IoS. Photo: Teresa Knight

When my family lived in London I would occasionally meet my parents at Regents Park. One time, around my 30th or 31st birthday, they presented me with a very heavy parcel. It was the recently published The Modern Antiquarian by Julian Cope, in all its blue and orangeness. They’d even got a signed edition. The book has survived many house moves since then and is still in almost perfect condition. Obviously, it’s not a tome that can be taken on trips to sacred sites (and Cope has recently stated that it will always be reprinted in its original format, never as a paperback) but it’s a constant source of information and reference. I’ve always been interested in archaeology but found the more academic work to be dry and without passion. Along with knowing his subject very well, Cope is passionate beyond words. The book has notes written at every site visited, often in howling winds and rain, and he gives a sense of the place, the vibe if you like. It reignited my interest and made me feel that someone like me, who didn’t know the ins and outs of archaeology, could get into it again. And the spiritual side – Paganism, Goddess worship, is as close as you’ll get to where I am – has just exploded in recent years. Try TMA’s website for huge amounts of information on sites all around the UK. The website has branched out to mainland Europe, but I haven’t got that far yet. In another life, perhaps.