Author Archives: K. A. Laity

K. A. Laity is an all-purpose writer, Fulbrighter, uberskiver, medievalist, humourist, flâneuse, techno-shamanka, social media wrangler for Broad Universe and Mavens of Mayhem, as well as Pirate Pub Captain, currently anchored in Dundee, Scotland. Her novels include WHITE RABBIT, OWL STRETCHING, PELZMANTEL, THE MANGROVE LEGACY and the CHASTITY FLAME thriller series. Visit her website to view her voluminous bibliography: http://www.kalaity.com/

K.A Laity is editing the ‘Noir’ anthology series for Fox Spirit

Respectable Horror: Matthew Pegg

MR James Ghost StoriesHaunted Objects.

Sometimes it can be quite hard to put your finger on exactly where a story came from or what inspired it, because so much of writing happens in the subconscious. I usually start out with a snippet of a plot, or a character or an idea, but once I start writing other things accrue and attach themselves to it; events occur that I wasn’t expecting, characters pop up and demand to take part, the story takes on a life of its own.

But I can put my finger on some of the influences on The Well Wisher.

I’ve always liked classic horror and ghost stories, ever since reading my grandparent’s copy of A Century of Thrillers: From Poe to Arlen, which sat on their small and only bookshelf, along with The Passionate Witch by Thorne Smith. (I’ve still got the book and the bookshelf.) A Century of Thrillers is a chunky volume, published by The Daily Express newspaper in the 1930s. Its a great collection of classic tales and well worth tracking down.

I wanted to write a story in that vein and thought it would be interesting to write about a haunted object. M.R. James’s The Mezzotint, A Candle in Her Room, (a terrifying children’s book by Ruth M. Arthur,) and Stephen King’s Christine all tackle this concept in quite different ways.

James’s haunted engraving replays a horrific incident from the past but doesn’t offer any real threat to its observers. You could argue that the true horror of the tale lies in the fact that the protagonist is powerless to influence the events he sees slowly unfolding in the picture.

In A Candle in Her Room the wooden doll Dido exerts a malign influence over three generations of the same family. It is the way that possession of the doll changes its owner that is frightening.

The Witch DollChristine, the 1950s Plymouth Fury, is the most concrete haunted object of the three, quite capable of killing you on its own. But like Dido, possession of Christine changes its owner. I like the way King turns the classic 1950s car, a symbol of the American Dream, into something evil. I also like the detail, missing from the film, that Christine’s milometer runs backwards: the more you drive it the newer the car gets. When thugs trash the car, owner Arnie pushes it round the block all night, putting his back out in the process, until the car repairs itself. There’s something satisfying about the physicality of that action.

I had a feeling that if you’re going to write about a haunted object then it should be a functional object, and if its normal function can become threatening in some way then that seemed to me to be satisfyingly neat. Of the three examples of haunted objects above, I think only in Christine do you get a sense of what has caused an inanimate object to turn nasty: Christine has been created by the human hatred of its previous owner, rather than any supernatural force. So its progenitors are Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde rather than Dracula: we create the monster and we become the monster, rather than the monster being a threat from elsewhere.

I like structure in stories. I find it satisfying when things have some kind of internal logic. So I wanted to know why my haunted object behaved the way it did. And that ‘why’ had to also be something to do with it’s function. That was what I was trying to achieve and I hope it works.

I’m being a bit coy about revealing too much about The Well Wisher because I hope you’ll read it and I don’t want to spoil it for you.

Miss Andrews, the central character, evolved all on her own to become a troubled, clever, kind, brave, flawed person. And I can’t claim to have planned any of that, it just happened. I do know that one influence on her was Jane Eyre. I’d recently seen a theatre version of the story and it was rattling round in my brain, especially Jane’s orphan status and poverty, which define the choices she can make in life.

For an unmarried Victorian woman, educated but not wealthy, being a governess was one of the few options available. Charlotte and Anne Bronte did this in real life and that experience is reflected in both Jane Eyre and Anne’s first novel Agnes Grey.

I felt that the Victorian governess was in a rather uneasy position, not quite one of the servants, but not truly a member of the family either. I liked that sense of isolation, unease and insecurity.

So Miss Andrews became a governess, sometimes too forthright for her own good but worried about her future, and much braver than me. I would like to know what happens to her next.

But as I said at the start, a lot of any story emerges from the subconscious. So when I was reading the proof copy of Respectable Horror, I was struck by how much of The Well Wisher seemed quite unfamiliar. “Where did that come from,” I wondered, “And that?”

I can’t even claim credit for the double meaning in the title….
 
Matthew Pegg is a writer based in Leicestershire in the UK. Most of his writing has been for theatre and includes work for puppet companies, youth theatres, community plays and a script designed to be performed during a medieval banquet. His most recent theatre work was Escaping Alice, a love story with chains and handcuffs, for York Theatre Royal. He’s also completed a community radio play based on the life of Wordsworth and has been commissioned to create a puppet play to tour to care homes for people suffering from dementia. In 2012 he completed an MA in Creative Writing, and since then he has been working on a novel, and placing short fiction with a variety of publishers. Website: http://www.mpegg.co.uk 

Save

Respectable Horror: Ian Burdon

We’ve got a scintillating new collection of stories coming: Respectable Horror. As you might guess from the title it’s a return to creepy spooky unsettling tales — think Shirley Jackson and M.R. James. Here’s one of our writers telling you about how he came to write his story:

Polin seasideIan Burdon

I used to write.

I used to start things, then abandon them because they were crap. That isn’t false modesty, I still have some of them on floppy disk, or even typewritten with copious Tippex corrections (yes kids, that’s how old I am). I keep meaning to destroy them, but somehow can’t; so sometimes I take them out and read them, and they’re still crap.

Eventually I stopped writing fiction; not for any real reason, just the usual job and family things that took up my time. And I wrote stuff for work, which sublimated the urge to make things up (though I was a civil servant, so…).

I even got published.

Then one day my wife and I were on a remote single-track road in the Highlands, and, as we rounded a blind corner, a spume of characters and ideas blew in through the open car window and into my notebook. I started plotting a novel, somewhat inspired by my first degree (Theology) and Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, but set in Caithness, with characters who might or might not exist, depending on your point of view. I knew two things straight away: I wanted to write that story, and I didn’t have the skills to do it. So I wrote lots of practice pieces to try and develop, sharing my efforts with friends in similar circumstances.

Eventually, after lots of words, and lots of deletions, I produced a couple of scenes that I knew were qualitatively better than previous efforts, and promptly went on holiday.

This time, we were walking on a remote Sutherland beach [photo above!] where I was reminded of Jonathan Miller’s classic 1968 adaptation of Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come to You, My Lad. Gosh, I thought, we’re walking through the middle of an MR James story. Out came the notebook. Not long after, the first draft of “The Estate of Edward Moorehouse” was complete.

I didn’t write it with publication in mind, and I didn’t expect to write anything in the horror genre, respectable or not; it’s not what I normally read. Authors whom I’d like to emulate in one way or another include Muriel Spark, Edna O’Brien, Dorothy Dunnett, George MacKay Brown, M John Harrison and Christopher Priest.

Since Edward Moorehouse, I’ve completed several stand-alone stories and a 105K word collection of linked short stories—that began when I found myself inadvertently writing a vampire story and knew I didn’t want to write any such thing. I’m currently working on a sequel to that. And I still have that other novel to write, and the one about sex workers in post-war Edinburgh, and by the way did I tell you about the monk who talked to lizards, and the boy who rode trains with his coyote, and…

 

Save

Monday Methods: Promotion

If you’re one of the Skulk, the hearty band of Fox Spirit authors, there’s good news. The hard work of promotion is helped by being a member of the Skulk. We’re all in this together! The rising tide — and hey, it’s definitely rising! — associated with the AWARD-WINNING quality of Fox Spirit Books helps every one of us. But it’s not the be all and end all.

YOU NEED TO PROMOTE YOUR BOOK.

Look around you. Small presses are closing their doors in frightening numbers. Why? The very best of small presses are all living on a short margin. Fox Spirit Books is held together by the sheer determination of Adele and a handful of intrepid folk who work well below cost (we have ridiculously talented editors and artists). When they put together a book, it’s because they believe in its quality.

Your job is not done when you hand in the manuscript: it’s just begun. You could have the best book in the world, that’s ever been written, that will make the planets align, feed the hungry, end all wars, or even one that could make the world finally join hands, sing hallelujah and bring peace on earth, but it won’t happen if nobody knows about it.

Fox Spirit will feature it on the website, Facebook and Twitter. Adele usually makes the effort to pull out interesting extracts to tempt readers. THAT IS NOT ENOUGH.

  1. At the very least you need to retweet/share all the things that Fox Spirit does on your social media platforms. It doesn’t have to be all at once: stagger them throughout the day. Not just on your release day, but afterward continue to follow up.
  2. Follow the other Fox Spirit skulk members. We are mighty. We generally retweet other skulk members’ stuff when we see it. Include @foxspiritbooks in your tweet in some way like ‘Wow, my awesome book has just come out from @foxspiritbooks #fantasy that includes capybaras!’ If you’re in a collection, tag the other folks you know who are in it. You’re not on your own: you’re SKULK! Rahr! Be proud.
  3. Be creative: don’t just tweet out boring ‘here’s my book, buy it!’ Has that ever worked with anyone? No! What made you interested enough in this story to write it? Do you just think ‘Capybaras are awesome!’ There are bound to be other people who think so, too. Find communities who will be interested in what you’ve written. Maybe you already belong to a group that shares your interest. Let them know! Join in a bigger event: there are all kinds of hashtag topics that occur weekly — for instance, I write a lot of folklore & fairytale stories, so I am an enthusiastic participant in #FolkloreThursday. Find your people.
  4. Blog: the death of the blog, much like the death of the novel, has often been suggested to no avail. Blog on your own site (you do have a website, right? if not what are you waiting for?) but also consider other places that could use your expertise — including the Fox Spirit blog. Got a topic for one of our features: Monday Methods, Five for Friday, What I Learned from Cult TV? Let Adele know. There are oodles of genre blogs out there, many of them happy to take outside content that fits the interest of their readers. Think bigger than yourself: community is what it’s all about.
  5. Offline and local: bookstores can be tough for small press. They only generally buy from distributors. Some local independent stores carry local authors. Get in touch and find out. Send out press releases to local radio and television emphasising the local author angle or something newsworthy. Glom onto a popular topic in the news (‘Are Capybaras More Popular than Cats on the Internet?’). Don’t overlook your local library: many love to draw on local authors for talks on popular topics or how-to talks. Writer organisations in your area can also be something to look into both for promotion and for sharing experiences.

Writing is a career. You don’t just do it for a day. Everybody talks about ‘branding’ these days: all that means is letting people know who you are and what you write. Let your personality shine through: don’t think of it as ‘selling’ (which is hard for some people) or just promotion, but communicating.

Just remember: your book’s success reflects the effort you put into it. Don’t go to the trouble of writing a book only to let it languish in the shadows. Step out into the spotlight and let the world see your work!

And make Adele happy!

Happy Skulk Leader

Five on Friday: Alternative Xmas

Put the X in Xmas! Tired of the kid friendly films? And you’ve already watched Hans Gruber fall this season? Here’s five holiday films that won’t overload the saccharine and might just give you a reason to smile.

THE THIN MAN: Thinly veiled portrait of Hammett and Hellman’s own hijinks. If you don’t love Myrna Loy and William Powell after this you have no soul!

THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER: Speaking of thinly veiled, allegedly a portrait of the cantankerous Alexander Woolcott with the fabulous Bette Davis and a great cast.

THE APARTMENT: Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine, romance without schmaltz.

BRAZIL: We’re all in this together. You might want to get used to the world of this film; we’re hurtling toward it.

IN BRUGES: Maybe you like to go on holiday abroad (while you still can). Martin McDonogh and the boys want you to have a real good time. If you like darkness, guilt and violence, this is the film for you, assuming you’ve already enjoyed THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT which I said I wasn’t going to bring up this time because I always mention it.

P.S. Buy our books.

What I Learned from Cult TV: Friendship is Magic

Cult TV show My Little Pony

This is about my My Little Pony epiphany. I have sighed my way through a lot of bad entertainment consumption with the Executive Princess, much of it day-glo and glittery. I think the bottom of the barrel might be Barbie’s Life in the Dream House but it could also apply to the endless package openings on YouTube where that woman with the grating voice goes into orgasmic raptures in that sing-song way over every product that she’s paid to drool over.

If you do not know her, be grateful.

So I expected no less of MLP, which originally kicked off in the 80s with a film promoting a toy line (the horror of that 80s animation! If you have seen that travesty, you know of what I speak: believe me, anything that Madeline Kahn cannot rescue is irredeemable). Sure, I had heard of Bronies and other cutesy appropriations as every pony knows, but considering the unearned fanaticism that makes some folks fawn over that saccharine Speilbergian horror, Goonies, I didn’t pay much attention. I figured it was another ‘I love it because I grew up with it’ phenomenon (I grew up with war pictures and Westerns: I do not generally love either). I really didn’t think MLP would be any different from, say, those interminable Strawberry Shortcake episodes (scarring, I assure you).

I certainly never expected to fight off tears watching MLP’s Rainbow Rocks.

Somehow a bunch of things collided in my head last summer while I first got immersed in Ponyville. I was also reading some Megan Abbott (Fever and then later The End of Everything) and also noticing stories like the Slenderman stabbing. They stirred up a lot of the best and worst of girlhood. There’s a darkness in it that no one much likes to admit; it can be a very claustrophobic world.

Girls lives are circumscribed by society. Much as we like to think we are free and liberal (all current evidence to the contrary), the truth remains that girls lives are tightly bound. At the far end of the spectrum, they’re literally locked away until handed over to a husband or some other patriarchal organisation; at the more lenient end, they’re hemmed in by social constructions that breed fear into their very skin. They’re both disparaged and protected. They don’t have a choice. So what happens?

Girls expand to fill the spaces allowed them.

It may be very little, it may be a little bit more. But it’s almost always less: less than they want, less than they need, leaving a permanent curvature to their psyches like bound feet. In countless ways they are encouraged to be girly: ‘you look so pretty!’ ‘isn’t she adorable?’ ‘just like a little lady.’

Yet ‘girly’ is usually a slur. I know, I’m still dealing with that one, being a former tomboy now step-monster to a quintessentially girly girl. Do you know how much glitter there is in this house? Everything seems to sparkle. It makes me feel like Lou Grant sometimes, because this girl: she’s got spunk and there is not enough pink in the world for her. She has lots of princess dresses and I don’t know how many Elsa dolls. She’s better at applying makeup and not even six. It’s not my thing: and she sighs at my mostly black clothes. She paints my nails. There’s a part of me that finds rebellion in that. Because girly gets sneers. What’s more derided in pop culture than girls and their selfies? Could it be because selfies allow girls to choose how they’re represented?

Me and Executive Princess

Because girls are never right: if they’re girly, they’re denying themselves—if they’re not girly, they’re denying everyone else (‘Can’t you wear a dress at least once in a while?’). I hear parents who claim they raise their boys and girls the same; I also hear them say things to the girls they would never say to the boys. That’s because I remember too well not being allowed to do things my brothers were allowed. Seldom said ‘because you’re a girl’ but I knew that was why.

Everything girly is tainted: pop stars, for example. Is there anyone more despised than the floppy-haired pop stars girls scream for? Cultural disdain for them is one of the few things seemingly everyone can get away with. Girls like those safe, sexless, moronic pop stars, you say. No, girls are allowed them. They channel all the passion that frightens their parents into cute and inoffensive stars. Look at all the audiences at Beatle concerts: the tears, the ecstatic expressions, the clenched fists and contorted bodies. Where else do girls get to show that? Read Abbott’s books: she’s great at revealing how girls’ desires terrify their parents — and often themselves.

One of the keys to surviving girlhood is friendship, but that’s problematic, too. Friendship when it’s manly is the stuff of Oscars and literary prizes: important. For girls it’s rivals and mean girls and frenemies, at least that’s what popular culture tells us. For girls friendship is both safety and danger. When Lauren Faust worked on MLP to demonstrate Friendship is Magic she delved into one of the most rich veins of human existence: the compressed world of girls’ power.

I’ll admit it: the MLP world is girly as girly can be: Twilight Sparkle, the solitary and bookish young royal, gets sent to Ponyville to understand the power of friendship. She hooks up with Flutter Shy, Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash, Apple Jack and Rarity to discover this strange thing just in time to deal with a real crisis—the return of Nightmare Moon! Okay, if you’re still with me, this is a lot more charming than the cutesy names indicate (which were chosen by marketers after all). The dialogue of the show is often clever and there’s loads of winking references and homages (especially in the music and the music is often really good).

The essence of MLP’s world is the elements of harmony: everyone is valued for their unique abilities. The 1984/Harrison Bergeron-esque episode ‘The Cutie Map’ makes this point well. The ponies go to the mysterious village and discover its chilling appropriation of the equality sign in an attempt to make everyone in the village the same. Blah blah blah libertarian blah: the more interesting aspect comes out when our heroines start bickering over how to deal with the situation. One of the villagers asks them with alarm if their friendship is ending. The ponies are surprised because they bicker all the time: they’re all so different after all. For the villagers, however, difference = danger.

The episode hits at the fear wrapped up in girls’ friendships: that tension between wanting to be safe and trusted versus the knowledge that they have power over someone and want to test it. Girls have power over so little. The nice thing about MLP is that they demonstrate all the ways that friendships can be stressed by these differences—the anger and the frustration—but they also show the rewards of bringing those differences together to celebrate their community. Not just each other: their community, their town Ponyville and all of Equestria. But it’s never easy.

You see, the thing I hadn’t anticipated was how dark MLP gets. One of the monsters they fight is a creature called Discord. His chief evil is turning all the friends against each other. Of course they need to come together to fight him and he’s vanquished by being turned into stone, yet the discord between the friends causes them a great deal of pain. Like Queen Chrysalis of the Changelings or Lord Tirek, antagonists are often removed or neutralized, but sometimes they’re brought back and rehabilitated. One of the foundational myths of Equestria is that Princess Luna is the restored Nightmare Moon. Even Discord’s magic is believed to have its uses. No one is doomed to being evil.

Rainbow Rocks

In the Equestria Girls narratives (where the ponies become girls in an alternate world no there’s no time to explain, just roll with it) this idea of reclaiming those who would abuse power is key. In the first EG film Sunset Shimmer tries to steal Equestrian magic for her own self-aggrandizement. The girls stop her selfish use of power with their collective cooperation, which Twilight Sparkle spends most of the story building because in this world, the friendships had soured. Despite the anger and hurt from misunderstandings,  that cooperation is something they all yearn for—and its power. Power for yourself alone is bad. There’s nothing wrong with competition (ask Rainbow Dash!) but when you think the world revolves around you, the girls will stop you.

Even more interesting is the follow-up Equestria Girls adventure, my fave Rainbow Rocks. You know I’m a sucker for a battle of the bands. The songs are seriously good pop songs. Part of the appeal of the story is that Sunset Shimmer spends most of the story being cold-shouldered for her past mistakes, even when she tries to help make things better. Twilight Sparkle insists on her being part of the gang, but the others find it difficult to get over her previous bad behaviour. Her outsider status allows her to see the clashes that begin to crack up their tight relationships, though of course no one wants to listen to her.

As their rivals, the magically powered Dazzlings, gain power—all for the glory of Adagio Dazzle (‘We Will Be Adored’)—the girls bicker bitterly with each other, trapped below the stage for the finale. Escaping by luck, they almost succeed in the supernatural fight, but the Dazzlings are too powerful what with their magic amulets. It’s only when the Equestria Girls realise they need to truly welcome Sunset Shimmer—not just tolerate her presence—that they have the power to stand up to the magical assault from the Dazzlings (also thanks to DJ Pon-3’s cool mobile DJ station–the unsung heroine!).

It may not sound like much, but it chokes me up every time. There’s just something about the exile being welcomed at last, the outsider invited in. Maybe all the scorned hope for understanding. We may only get it in fiction, yet it’s incredibly powerful.

I’m lucky: I have a secret cabal of powerful, creative, magical women in my corner (though literally around the world). It didn’t happen over night and there are always some bumps along the road. I know how important it is to tend that garden (she says mixing metaphors like assorted nuts). It’s essential to have that kind of support. We need to be there to call bullshit on those negative messages women all hear just because we’re female. There’s an incredible power in testifying, ‘No, it’s not just you’—that many of us have been in the same situation–especially when all the other voices of experience avalanche like candy from a piñata.

I’m hoping the that uphill battle is changing. While it’s a bit hard to believe as we inhale the last poisonous gasp of truly toxic misogyny, I’m hanging on for tomorrow. Largely because there’s this Executive Princess here. I want to see what she’s becoming. I’ve got a feeling it will be something amazing. When the generation of girls who bellow along with ‘Let It Go!’ come to power, we all better hang on to our hats.

I don’t care / what they’re going to say / let the storm rage on / the cold never bothered me anyway. [door slam]

Elsa slams door

Respectable Horror Authors

Witches in Leipzig (via the British Library free images)Fox Spirit is happy to announce the final line up for the forthcoming anthology Respectable Horror, tales that will unsettle and disturb you without too much in the way of scandalous words, excessive gore (a little blood may drip) or any hint of lewdness —

Well, perhaps a hint.

It was an arduous selection process, the editor begs to tell you. The number of submissions outstripped expectations that it was a bit daunting especially when it came to sending rejection notices. Those who made the final cut should be especially pleased to have done so as the competition was considerable and truly global.

In a haphazard order here are the tales that will be included: the precise table of contents will be determined soon as will the cover artist. A couple names may be familiar to Fox Spirit readers, but most will be new — indeed this will be the first publication from a couple of our contributors.

Later this year, you will be able to discover the thrills and chills for yourself. Get ready for stories that will leave an indelible mark on your nights and your dreams.

The Authors

The Astartic Arcanum – Carol Borden

The Well Wisher – Matthew Pegg

The Little Beast – Octavia Cade

The Holy Hour – Chloë Yates

A Framework – Richard Barber

Malefactor – Austin Waller

The Estate of Edward Moorehouse – Ian Burdon

Spooky Girl – Maura McHugh

Full Tote Gods – Damien White

A Splash of Crimson – Catherine Lundoff

Where Demons Don’t Tread – Suzanne Willis

The Recovery – Edward Gauvin

Running a Few Errands – Su Haddrell

The Feet on the Roof – Anjana Basu

Miss Metcalf – Ivan Kershner

In These Rooms, These Houses – Jonathan Oliver

Those Who Can’t – Rosalind Mosis

 

Call for Stories: Respectable Horror

Ghost Stories

Image via The British Library

Oh, another bloody slasher. Oh, more extreme horror. Oh, it must be Tuesday. BORED!

Whilst sipping a martini clarity arrives: one hungers for a change of pace, dash it all:

So we would like tales of civilised, gentle(wo)manly horror, cold, calculating and bloodless; spinechillers rather than slashers, enervating instead of eviscerating. Though a wee bit of the red stuff will not make us blanch, focus more on unshakeable dread. Make us afraid to investigate that noise downstairs. Cause us to shudder when we glimpse something move out of the corner of our eyes. Think Ann Radcliffe and the Gothics, Mary Shelley, Elizabeth Gaskell, Wilkie Collins, M.R. James and even those modern folks like Shirley Jackson and Fritz Leiber.

It’s all about the style. Mashups are the Fox Spirit specialty, so mix and match to your little heart’s content (Lovecraftian Wodehouse has been done). Just be sure to keep the theme uppermost.

Humorous attempts at horror are acceptable, but be warned that your editor’s sense of humour like her taste in martinis is most peculiar and exacting. You would be strongly advised to inform yourself of her tastes.

THE PARTICULARS for Respectable Horror

Follow our house style and submit via Word document attachment to katelaity at gmail dot com by December 31st, 2015. Selection of stories will happen in the spring; the publication itself will appear later in 2016. You will be expected to join in the publicity efforts as much as you are capable (social media mostly).

Word count: ~4-8K

Payment: £10 upon publication + digital and print copy of the volume

What ho! Ask any questions you have in advance of the closing date.

Foxy Friday: Finnish Edition

(JUHO KUVA)

It’s Juhannuspäivä in Finland — midsummer, that is. The whole long weekend where a lot of Finns head out to their little cottages for fun in the water and woods, saunas (of course) and a bonfire under the midnight sun. Yes, there is drinking and sausages, too. Traditionally it was a time for spells to increase fertility on your farm including finding a spouse.

If you’re far from Finland this weekend (sob and shout out to my cousins in Kemi!) you could do worse than enjoy some great Finnish films. Not quite as well known as its Scandinavian neighbours to the west nor Russia to its east, the Baltic nation offers a uniquely rich national cinema that stands out in a homogenous filmmaking landscape.

I have to start with Aki Kaurismäki because well, you have to do so. Legendarily elusive of serious discussion and dismissive of any praise, he nonetheless reigns supreme because he’s at least had some fame outside Finland though not quite on the level of Renny Harlin. Harlin, despite sneaking in references to Finland in every single film, really remains a Hollywood director who comes from Finland. Kaurismäki captures the black humour and hopeful melancholy that permeate so much Finnish creativity (Angry Birds aside). I chose Ariel because it’s the first of his films I saw and it made me laugh so hard even though it’s also very dark (as this clip demonstrates). But see all of them! Seriously: all.

Chances are if you know anything about Finland and you’re a skulk member, you may know the wonderful Moomins. I considered putting one of the Moomin films here — Comet in Moominland is just wonderful and really captures the books! — but even more fascinating to me is this documentary on the artist who created them. Haru, The Island of the Solitary shows the rough little island where Tove Jansson spent much of her summers with her partner ‘Tooti’ (Tuulikki Pietilä). There are a couple of wonderful biographies of the artist that show her amazing work beyond the Moomins and the swirl of a life she had, but somehow the brutal simplicity of this island life stands out.

When did these filmmakers look into my dreams? I am, perhaps, one of a small number who form the ideal audience for this film that spins together Finnish mythology and wu xia action, but I’m sure its magic will appeal to a wide audience—if they can get over the strangeness of the concept.

Admittedly Jade Warrior sounds a bit esoteric: a mixture of the ancient Finnish story collection, The Kalevala, and the sword and sorcery of early China—with a little modern Helsinki life thrown in, too. It’s wu xia and urban fantasy and a whole lot more (see my long review here) but it’s a real fun film that has a lot to recommend it.

When’s the last time you saw a good sledgehammer fight anyway?

Härmä — In the plainlands of Ostrobothnia, Western Finland, a tradition prevails, according to which the first-born son inherits everything and the remaining offspring must fend for themselves. The law has been cast aside in many areas and groups of men, knife-wielding thugs, nicknamed ‘toughs’, control the fields. The blade rules the land. ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE NORTH, directed by Jukka-Pekka Siili, had its international market premiere in Cannes 2012.

When I saw there was a Finnish ‘Western’ you know I had to have it. Ignore the attempts to market it as Once Upon a Time in the NorthIt’s based on a very real phenomenon of the knife-gangs who strong-armed folks in the sparsely inhabited west in the late 19th century. When you’re accustomed to the hail of bullets in modern Westerns, it’s a bit disconcerting to see someone whip out a knife with menace (and impossible not to think of Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid). But the knife fights are well done — in fact all the action is nicely done. (See my long review here).

Of course I can’t skip over Rare Exports. What a wonderful film! And filmed in beautiful Lapland. Love that tagline: “This Christmas EVERYONE will believe in  Santa!” Be warned: Santa may not be quite what you were expecting! I think the less I tell you about this, the better. Just see the movie. Even Hollywood was sufficiently impressed to team this crew up with Samuel L. Jackson for Big Game.

Monday Methods – Noir by Graham Wynd

Cover by S. L. Johnson

Cover by S. L. Johnson

by Graham Wynd

If you write noir then you know the murky streets where darkness and rain seem nigh on constant. When Monday rolls around it’s just another day and you face it with a hangover more often than not. The slug of whisky in your coffee is just enough to stop the shakes and the dame that rolls into your office looking too slinky for the daylight reminds you how you got into this state in the first place.

But she’s got that one thing you need: a story. That’s the real drug. You can sit at your battered Underwood—issued to all would-be noir writers at the inception of their careers—and open a vein as Red Smith suggests, but blood only gets you so far. You need a narrative to lasso your reader and drag them along behind you.

If you’re writing noir, you need atmosphere too. It helps if you have the kind of heart that’s heard “too many lies” because after all “one more tear won’t make no difference to the rain”. Your heart has to yearn for something it’s not likely to get, yet that goal has to be close enough to your grasp to make reaching for it irresistible. That’s what keeps the shadowy streets, rainy nights, cool dames and dangerous guys from slipping into cliché.

It helps if you have an ear for dialogue. You can go plain and hard, like the Continental Op, but once the bodies pile up you find yourself spitting out phrases like, “This damned burg’s getting to me. If I don’t get away soon I’ll be going blood-simple like the natives.” You have to feel isolated, like you can’t trust anybody really, even if you need to relax once in a while. Every description reminds you that death lurks behind every transaction. The Op hears things like, “Polly De Voto is a good scout and anything she sells you is good, except maybe the bourbon. That always tastes a little bit like it had been drained off a corpse.”

If there isn’t the risk of death, the stakes aren’t high enough. Sit down and list your characters: figure out what they want and how they suffer and see where the lines cross. Make them doubt every step of the way—make them also think they’re the one who’ll get away with it, that they’re ahead of the game.

And make them suffer. Make them all suffer. Take another shot of whisky. You’re bleeding now.

Graham Wynd

A writer of bleakly noirish tales with a bit of grim humour, Graham Wynd can be found in Dundee but would prefer you didn’t come looking. An English professor by day, Wynd grinds out darkly noir prose between trips to the local pub. Wynd’s novella of murder and obsessive love, EXTRICATE is out now from Fox Spirit Books; the print edition also includes the novella THROW THE BONES and a dozen short stories. See more stories (including free reads!) here.

FS4 Missing Monarchs ebook 72ppi

A Beginner’s Guide to Finnish Myth & Folklore

Astuvansalmi Rock Paintings ©K. A. Laity

by K. A. Laity

Today Fox Spirit Books brings out a shiny new edition of my tales inspired by Finnish myth and folklore, DREAM BOOK. Inside you’ll find short stories (including two brand new ones), a little poetry and even a play.

Let me tell you a bit about the mythology. The Kalevala and The Kanteletar are the twin tomes of Finnish myth and folklore. The stories and songs that make up these collections are very old, but were gathered together in the nineteenth century as a surging sense of national pride grew. The tiny nation straddles the dividing line between the Baltic and Scandinavia, and had been dominated alternately by its two larger neighbours, Sweden and Russia.

In the 19th century, a doctor with a fascination for folklore, Elias Lönnrot set out to collect examples of the old tunes and stories that people told to try to capture what he saw as a vanishing way of life. In The Kalevala, he arranged these stories in runos to link together story arcs. You can read an English version online, but let me acquaint you with some of the recurring characters who show up in my stories.

Väinämöinen is the eternal sage. After Ilmatar the goddess gives birth to the world, he is the first human born. He knows all manner of magic. I’ve always found it fascinating that much of Finnish magic comes from know the true names of things and being able to sing them. At one point, Väinämöinen faces a young challenger who thinks he can take on the old man, but he gets sung right into a swamp. The panicky Joukahainen offers his sister’s hand in marriage, which starts another theme for the old magician: he never gets the girl.

Aino is the sister offered to Väinämöinen. Her parents think it’s an advantageous marriage, but the beautiful young maiden finds little appeal in being joined to the ancient sage and finally drowns herself to escape. She comes back, however, as a salmon to taunt Väinämöinen, so she lives again. Väinämöinen’s mother suggests he should go north to find a bride instead.

Louhi is the witch of the northern lands. There’s a great split in the Kalevala between the people of the south in Kaleva and those in the north, so they’re always portrayed as adversaries. Louhi, while seemingly as powerful as Väinämöinen, inevitably the stories depict her as “evil” which just sat wrong with me. I used to play in a band called Louhi’s Daughters with my friends Minna and Kasha, who shared the opinion that we were getting a rather one-sided view of Louhi. In our performances we tried to give a more balanced picture of this amazing woman. Our very first performance together was a retelling of the Aino story, which also proved a resonant touchstone for DREAM BOOK.

While The Kalevala has a series of narrative threads, The Kanteletar is a looser collection of songs grouped by who sings them, i.e. men, women or children. There are also a number of ballads that would be sung by everyone. Not surprisingly, one of the songs is all about the kantele, the national musical instrument of Finland. The name of the collection is kantele plus the feminine ending, so you might think of “Kanteletar” meaning the spirit of the kantele, the source of all the songs.

Here’s a video of snapshots from my visit to the ancient rock paintings.