African Monsters : Behind ‘Sacrament of Tears’ by Toby Bennett

It always seems hard to discuss the origin of a story. Like those triumphant moments in junior school when you proudly announced the answer to a question and someone says “now show your working please” and suddenly all your triumph fades—all you can wonder is how did I get here in the first place?

It’s very tempting, at least for me, to be over analytical. Just layout the steps one by one and that should give you the answer but writing is not mathematics and besides, the writer in you points out, shouldn’t it be dramatic? Isn’t it your job to tell a story people will like? (the irony being half the reason writers tell stories is we hope that people will find them more interesting than we feel!)

If I were to list the steps in the creation of “Sacrament of Tears” I’d have to start by admitting that I chose the Abiku because the Lightening Bird was already taken.

Simple as that from a practical stand point.

Second in line? Drat!

Okay I’ll just grab something else from the menagerie.

Except it didn’t turn out to be simple at all – I should have known I was in trouble when I presumed it would be.

The moment I started to read up on the Abiku I was intrigued – what terror could be worse than the prospect of losing a child? Worse the child itself being complicit in that loss.

My spooky senses were positively tingling. This was way creeper than any straight up blood and gore monster this was something that nested in your family, made you love it and then stole all your happiness – monster gold, surely?

But no sooner had I confidently agreed to write my story than I realized what a complex task I had undertaken.

The Abiku is not just a monster, it is a fact of life. There was a time when the threat of wolves in a harsh winter might have given similar weight to ravening werewolves or the sight of un-decomposed bodies might have inspired whispers of vampire, but these things are distant now, weekend thrills and movie-house ghosts. The jump-scares and startled screams that colour so much modern horror just weren’t going to cut it.

wolves_in_the_night_by_mukademukwa

The Abiku is insidious, for all it cuts closer to the bone, thus it is also harder to depict. How can one grasp the slow horror of a child slipping away from you? Particularly in parts of the world where infant mortality rates have fallen so much.

I faced the question of how I might do this African monster justice?

The terror of the inexplicable loss of a child is echoed around the world in stories of changelings, fey abductors, even cats that come to steal a child’s breath. It is of particular concern in African cultures where until relatively recently the view of the world beyond the homestead was of chaos kept at bay.

I thought long and hard of all the parallels, all the shared experiences both ancient and modern that lend weight to the profound terror that the Abiku should represent. The flavour of the monster may be African, but the concept is truly universal in its menace.

So that’s where I started, with a stranger looking in from the outside.

Well not really, there were a few rewrites before that, but the angle from which the story was told ended up becoming key. As far as communicating what it must be like to have one’s life  touched by an Abiku goes—I know I failed and was presumptuous to have thought I could  succeed but hopefully Martin Faircut’s letter does something else.

Like any true horror the Abiku is beyond anyone who has not experienced it but in the voice of the outsider, the explorer who may take one step too far in the wrong direction I hope I have conveyed at least some of the unease and foreboding that drew me to the monster in the first place.

 

African Monsters : Behind the Scenes by Dave De Burgh

Getting an invite to write a story for an anthology is probably one of the best feelings in the world for a writer. There’s a kind of acceptance that comes with that invitation, a sense of ‘Yes, we believe you are capable and good enough’, and since writers are always fighting themselves and the multitude of blank pages which need filling, this kind of thing happening is not only a boost for the writer but also for the writer’s other projects. I certainly crowed with excitement when I read the email from Margret Helgadottir – not only because of the invite, but because of the publisher behind the anthology, Margret’s fellow editor Jo Thomas, and the idea behind the anthology. Accepting the invitation was a decision I didn’t have to think about – needless to say, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

My first instinct was to choose the Tikolosh or Tokolosh – I had done some research regarding this strange, mischievous and dangerous creature for an article I had written some months before, so I had a good place from which to start. The Tokolosh, however, had already been nabbed by one of my fellow storytellers, and so I had to find a new creature to build a tale around. I began thinking that I needed to choose a creature which hadn’t received a lot of (or any) press, something that the folks reading these tales would be intrigued and creeped out by. And when I came across stories and reports of the Popo Bawa, I knew I had my creature.

The first roadblock, of course, presented itself then and there – most of the stories I had read about the Popo Bawa came from Zanzibar… The only other country I’ve been to either than my home (South Africa) is Australia, so how was I going to convincingly write about a creature I’d just read about and a country I had never been to?

Obviously the first thing I did was panic.

Googling Zanzibar presented me with countless links and hundreds of articles – searching on Facebook brought me to tourist companies, and although their beautiful photos helped me to begin envisioning Zanzibar’s beautiful coast lines, that was about as helpful as those photos proved to be. Until I came across Stone Town. That was when it all began to click into place.

zanzibar

Stone Town is ancient and iconic – it has a long, varied and multi-cultural history, has been home to countless peoples, religions and beliefs, and was a trading hub between the Persians and Africa. *click* The link to my Tokolosh article bloomed in my mind, and then the rest of the tale began to fall into place.

I still needed a character to tell the tale through, however – someone who I could relate to (as the writer, having to ‘live’ inside his mind for a bit) and someone who knew just enough about the situation in the tale that I could comfortably explore Stone Town without coming across as a tour guide after a good tip.

I was still panicking – I hadn’t written a thing yet, and the deadline for submissions was fast approaching. So I began watching videos about Zanzibar on YouTube, and I began listening to Taraab on Soundcloud. Listening to that wonderful, energetic and rhythmic music someone helped to pinpoint the character I was going to use – a hard-bitten, cynical South African who was paid to investigate certain strange occurrences and deal with the creatures behind those occurrences.

So, I had my creature or monster, my setting, my character, and the details of a plot. I knew, however, that I would probably surprise myself with something in the plot – it usually happens, me getting this spark of inspiration which usually sends the plot off in a surprising direction while still leaving me the chance to connect it to the main plot.

And so ‘Taraab and Terror in Zanzibar’ took full shape; a tale about Terence and his trip to Zanzibar to investigate reports of resurgent and dangerous Popo Bawa. Except things are definitely not as they seem, and even Terence –with all his experience and street-smarts- is surprised when the full extent of the threat is revealed.

Be warned, though – I’ve taken some liberties (you’ll know them when you read them) in service of the tale.

I hope you enjoy it!

African Monsters : The Editors

As they are the editors of the Fox Spirit book of African Monsters, we thought it could be a good idea to let Margrét Helgadóttir (MH) and Jo Thomas (JT) start the little blog tour we are having here at the Fox Spirit Books since the book is now published. In the coming weeks we are going to let the contributors tell about their monsters or other things on their minds. Let’s start with Jo, who has something she wants to say first:

JT: ‘Last year, we did a question and answer session between the two of us explaining where the Monster anthology idea came from. This year… Well, this year, you have a blog post. A slightly hi-jacked blogpost as I (Jo) got to write the first draft and have a few things to say personally. So, this year, I’d like to heap some praise on my co-editor, Margrét, and my publisher, Adele at Fox Spirit Books, for working like Trojans the last few of months in order to get everything in place. Anyone who knows me knows I’ve been moving and starting a new job, so I haven’t had much time for putting African Monsters together. So, three cheers for the hard-working team that did! And now on to the main event.’

The original intention a few years ago, the idea that formed with a Twitter conversation, was a “look at the whole world of monsters.” This eventually narrowed down to look at the monsters in our own pond, the European monsters. We were fairly eager to extend in to further volumes for other continents quite soon after imposing the restriction for European Monsters and happily Adele agreed this was a good idea.

JT: ‘This is, of course, a source of argument between we two editors, with one being raised with the five-continent model of the world and the other with the seven-continent model of the world.’

Africa became the next place to visit on the world tour. It is, of course, a continent we’re both happy admit to the existence of and we had the benefit of Margrét having spent some of her formative years there so that she had a familiarity with a number of regions and folklores. As with European Monsters, the anthology was invitation only and so we used and abused Margrét’s contacts while also researching new ones. It was important to us to make use of authors and artists who lived or had connections with the areas they were working on. Although we had hoped to have been able to have solely African authors in the book, we have not been able to secure a hundred percent African talent for the resulting anthology, mostly due to time constraints and communication problems. Also, since we mostly have authors who write English in this book, the geographical representation, is sadly not a full reflection on the world’s second largest and second most populous continent.

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MH: ‘I feel we have learned much from editing these books when it comes to getting a good representation in the books. In following books we will try to have at least one translated story from a non-English speaking author. The key is to have the right amount of time, some luck and a good network.’

There is a wealth of skilled artists and published writers to look into and we consider our own anthology a jumping off point into the world of African fiction. But nevertheless, we have covered a small part of a large continent that we hope you enjoy. This is not the colonial “Dark Continent”—or, perhaps, not just the colonial, as that era is part of the history that formed the present day—but the stories we have gathered give grim glimpses of a darkness where the scariest thing is sometimes the bright light of day.

African Monsters Table of Contents

African Monsters, the second in the FS Books of Monsters series that started with European Monsters, is due out this Christmas. There will be a launch party in London early in 2016, please keep an eye out for more details.

In this collection we explore the old myths and monsters of the continent of Africa in short stories and art.

Edited by Margret Helgadottir and Jo Thomas and with Cover art by Daniele Serra we are pleased to reveal the table of contents for African Monsters:

Nnedi Okorafor: On the Road

Joan de la Haye: Impundulu

Tade Thompson: One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sunlight

Jayne Bauling: Severed

Su Opperman: The Death of One

T.L. Huchu: Chikwambo

Dilman Dila: Monwor

S. Lotz: That Woman

Toby Bennett: Sacrament of Tears

Chikodili Emelumadu: Bush Baby

Joe Vaz: After The Rain

Dave-Brendon de Burgh: Taraab and Terror in Zanzibar

Nerine Dorman: A Whisper in the Reeds

Vianne Venter: Acid Test

Nick Wood: Thandiwe’s Tokoloshe

James Bennett and Dave Johnson (artist): A Divided Sun

The book will also have illustrations from Su Opperman, Kieran Walsh, Mariam Ibrahim, Eugene Smith and Benali Amine.

The third book in the series will be Asian Monsters coming Christmas 2016.

European Monsters
European Monsters

 

European Monsters : Mermaids and the Deep

Mermaids and The Deep
Peter Damien

It’s an interesting thing what happens, when you tell people that you really like mermaids and mer-folk and writing stories about them. They have a pretty specific idea what your mer-folk look like and therefore what kind of story you’re probably writing about them. Specifically, Disney. If you say “mermaids,” people understand that you probably have some sort of singing Jamaican Lobster around the edges somewhere.

So with that in mind, it’s really interesting what happens when you tell people that 1) you’re writing a ghost story, approaching being a horror story and 2) your mermaids aren’t necessarily friendly beautiful half-women who are wondering what fire is, and why it burns, but might have more in common with the strange and alien things that live in the depths of our oceans. It doesn’t process, and mostly I get an odd look and they wander off.

I don’t care. I love mermaids, and I know exactly when it started: there was a brief sequence in a live-action Peter Pan movie from 2003, starring Jason Isaacs (who is somehow not always Lucius Malfoy??) in which for a brief second, we meet mermaids. They are pale and not friendly-looking at all, strange creatures that do look like, if you fall into the water, they might eat you.

jason2

That was all it took. Since 2003, I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time in my head and on paper building my own world of mermaids which had more to do with my abiding love of marine biology than it did with Disney mermaids. I’ve almost never discussed it, and I’ve barely scratched the surface.

I was excited to get to use some of it, in the story Old Bones. Tracing the origins of stories and the things that appear in them is always tricky, isn’t it? It’s such a blurring mash in your head. Here, though, it came from a song by a band called Nightwish, of whom I am a massive fan. The song was called Turn Loose the Mermaids. From the lyrics of the song, I garnered a general notion of mermaids, ghosts, and being exhausted and longing for rest. Impressions like these drift around in the back of my head, where they collect ideas, pulling from my mermaid lore, my general love of ghost stories (both haunting and tragic) and like so, my story began to come together. A story of an old man, made both physical and mental wreckage by his time at sea and the brutality of that life. From there, I had a very clear image of him coming out one night and on the rocky beach by his home, he sees a mermaid dragging herself across the ground and toward a graveyard. A strange, pale creature with long hair – more like seaweed than human hair – and sharp teeth, with too-big eyes. Not a Disney mermaid at all, but definitely a creature of the deep.

Mermaids are brilliant monsters when you start looking at marine biology and working out why things work the way they do underwater, and how a mermaid would exist down there. And personality-wise, they would be drastically alien to us. At least in the beginning. As the story goes, I try to humanize them, because there is nothing more engaging (and scary, sometimes) than humanizing a monster and making them relatable, or suggesting that perhaps the true horror isn’t the strange creature at all, but very human and acceptable elements of our lives: brutal violence, bad memories, old ghosts haunting our sleep and our lives without any spirits around at all.

(Well. Some spirits. Come on. Who can resist putting mermaids and ghosts into the same story? Not this guy.)

European Monsters : Unsympathetic Werewolves

Unsympathetic Werewolves
by Hannah Kate

When the editors of European Monsters asked me to contribute a werewolf story to the collection, I was over the moon. The idea of a book dedicated to dark, unsettling monsters appealed to my dark side – just as I’m sure it will appeal to the dark side of many readers. The initial brief was simple – to write a werewolf story that went back to the monster’s ‘roots’. A story about something frightening, monstrous and disturbing. Something unsympathetic, unromantic and unredeemed.

I have been a fan of werewolf fiction for a long time, and, in my other life (www.shewolf-manchester.blogspot.com), I’ve done a lot of academic research on werewolves in medieval and contemporary popular culture. I guess that might be one of the reasons why Jo and Margret asked me to tackle lycanthropes for European Monsters! So I put my thinking cap on and went to work on my story…

… but there was a problem. That word – ‘unsympathetic’ – kept nagging at me. Werewolves are definitely frightening, either in terms of encountering one or in terms of transforming into one. They are certainly disturbing and monstrous as well – at least most of them are. But are they unsympathetic? Have they ever been unsympathetic? Can we strip back the last few years of sparkly vampires and brooding shirtless teenwolves to find something more primal? Something that recalls a huddled mass of ancient ancestors, staying close to the campfire and trying to make sense of the howls of their lupine adversaries in the darkness?

The short answer is: no. Aside from didactic Christian texts (for instance, Inquisition handbooks and treatises on the devil), most literary and folkloric stories present the European werewolf as a sympathetic monster. That’s not to say all werewolves are ‘good’ or ‘noble’, but rather that the myth of prehistoric fireside stories of fearsome wolves stalking the forests is exactly that – a myth.* But like all short answers, this fact reveals a much longer answer that provided the inspiration for my story, ‘Nimby’.

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Given that we have no evidence of what ancient humans actually talked about around their fires, we have to look to literature for the earliest versions of the European werewolf. I’m going to skip over the first couple of millennia, if that’s okay, and jump to the first real ‘golden age’ of werewolf fiction: the late Middle Ages. Two of my favourite werewolf stories originate from this period: Marie de France’s Bisclavret and the Middle English William of Palerne (a translation of the Old French Guillaume de Palerne, but I think the translation totally outshines the original).

The werewolves in these stories aren’t hideous beasts that prowl the forests waiting for innocent travellers to eat (though Marie hints that some werewolves do this, just not her hero). They are civilized, aristocratic men who, due to circumstance and feminine malevolence, are forced to adopt the form of a wolf and abandon their former homes until they can find a cure. These men are tortured and miserable souls, cursed by the wicked women in their lives and perpetually grieving for their lost humanity. The possibility that they might lose the last shred of this humanity and become a snarling monster is never very far away.

But these men are victims. They are lost to a curse that is beyond their control. A Freudian might suggest that they are symbolic of the ‘beast within’ – the uncivilized and animalistic id that continuously threatens to overwhelm the more socially acceptable ego. I prefer to think of these medieval werewolves in terms of the cultural changes that were occurring when these stories were written: programmes of deforestation and urbanization (which had begun centuries earlier but became more sustained in the late Middle Ages) were ‘civilizing’ the wilderness, new genres of literature (particularly the romance) focused on nostalgic longing for a more innocent past, and organized wolf-hunts had set in motion a project that would eventually see native wolves hunted to extinction in many parts of Europe. Under these circumstances, werewolves are created as a romanticized reminder of a more rural, wilder past. These wolves belong to the forest, even at a time (especially at a time) when both wolves and forests were beginning to be systematically destroyed.

Skip forward a few centuries, and we can see the descendants of these romantic, sympathetic werewolves in contemporary fiction and film. Many werewolves are still victims – the innocent hiker whose only crime was to forget to stick to the road, the young man feeling the weight of his bloodline forcing him to change into something he is not, the embattled underdog who fights the oppressive vampire. (I’m leaving female werewolves out of this for now, because… well… that’s a whole other story…) Even in the most gory, bloody horror films, we still have sympathy for the werewolf. It’s not his fault he’s a monster! He’s trying his best to control it!

Of course, when presented with such a long history of sympathetic, romantic – even noble – werewolves, the temptation obviously is to try and subvert it. ‘Nimby’ is the second story I’ve written about an unsympathetic werewolf. In my earlier story, ‘Home’ (coming out in another anthology soon), I set myself the challenge of making a truly unlikable, powerful and unpleasant werewolf, in contrast to a helpless, innocent, sympathetic vampire – but that’s the opposite way round to the usual power dynamic between these supernatural creatures. You can read a bit more about my choices for ‘Home’ here (http://hannahkate.net/out-now-undead-memory-vampires-and-human-memory-in-popular-culture-peter-lang/).

For ‘Nimby’, I decided to take a different approach. I made a list of all the common characteristics of sympathetic and romanticized werewolves and thought about the potentially negative consequences of each one. Given my fondness for medieval werewolf romances, I ended up settling on the werewolf’s strong relationship to land (and forest). Lots of fiction and folklore has focused on the territorial nature of the werewolf. Others continue to link the wolf with a nostalgic image of the pastoral, pre-cultural, uncivilized wilderness. This sort of werewolf is the very opposite of progress, development and change.

And the more I thought about it, the more unsympathetic (and unlikeable) I thought that would be – I actually quite like progress and development, and territorialism is seldom a pleasant trait. That was when I first saw the werewolf who would become the main focus of ‘Nimby’, and the story began to take shape. I’ll warn you now – this werewolf doesn’t stalk the huddled masses around the campfire; he doesn’t pick off hikers on the moor; he doesn’t belong to a pack; and he doesn’t even howl at the moon. But I humbly submit him to the (admittedly small) ranks of thoroughly unpleasant and unsympathetic lycanthropes. And I hope you dislike him as much as I do.

* In his 2009 book, Wolves and the Wolf Myth in American Literature, S.K. Robisch calls this the ‘campfire myth’. This is a great book and I thoroughly recommend it.