Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Why I like this book :-)

There were vampire novels before Dracula, there have been many since, and there will undoubtedly be more to come in the future, but I doubt Dracula will ever be bettered. Why? Largely because it’s a product of the time it was written, and the man who wrote it - Bram Stoker, a member of high society in Victorian Dublin.
Stoker is the epitome of Victorian society - clearly a rather repressed and oppressed individual on the surface, his fiction betrays a rather different character, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, full of sexualities of dubious natures.
And this is at the heart of why Dracula was, and is, so successful - it strikes to the very core of the contradiction that is the vampire - the attraction to something potentially fatal, not just to your mortal self, but your immortal soul as well.
True, the charisma of the vampire had been set up by Polidori’s allusions to Byron, and another Dubliner, Sheridan Lefanu had already thrown Lesbian vampires into the mix in Carmilla, but Stoker worked these themes, and more, up into a slow burn of a novel that arrives in a final frenzy of blood-letting.
Along the way it uses multiple narratives, a relatively novel technique at the time, to weave a story of obsession, lust, menace and the supernatural.
It is one of the few books I have read several times, and every time I do, I enjoy it more, and it horrifies me more, not just as a reader, but as a writer too, because nothing else that Stoker wrote, before or after Dracula, comes close. He worked for years on the book that was to become his masterpiece, and it’s a frightening thought for a writer to fear that real creativity might abandon you altogether.

This is a guest post that first appeared on Varsity Online...

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Symbols and folklore

first posted at MY FAVOURITE BOOKS

If it was up to me, I would write folk and fairy tales. Really. But I can’t, because it’s not up to me. Or rather, I could do if I wanted to, but no one would buy them. Rather like the short story, folk and fairy tales are generally considered hard to publish these days, and to sell, with a few notable exceptions such as Angela Carter’s reworkings. But they are almost my favourite kind of story, and so, ever since I became a writer, I have always tried to find ways of working elements of folklore into my books. 

How? By using iconic images, words with deep resonance, patterns of story telling and certain motifs which remind us, subconsciously at least, of those dark stories we all heard at a tender age.

Midwinterblood is full of these things, my favourite two being the hare, and the moon. Each  of the seven parts of the book takes place under the influence of a full moon, but unlike today, our ancestors had names for each of the twelve full moons of the year. More in touch with the weather, the landscape and the turning of the seasons than we are, most ancient cultures had names such as the Snow Moon, the Grain Moon, the Fruit Moon. I took the ones I liked best from English and Norse calendars, recast them slightly, and it is these moons that shone down upon the protagonists of Midwinterblood. 

And the hare? Such a mysterious creature, little accurate was known about it until relatively recently in our history, allowing all sorts of myths to be created around it. So when I was looking for a totemic creature for Merl to have in the book, the hare seemed perfect - fast, lithe, unknowable - and so a hare appears, as a child’s toy, as a carving, as the real creature, as a grieving lover transformed by a witch. And if I can’t get away with writing new fairy tales, at least I can enjoy plundering our literary heritage to populate my books.

And here’s an extract from Part One of Midwinterblood, Midsummer Sun

Eric explores late into the afternoon.
He finds nothing, at least, nothing that he is looking for.
The orchids, or a production facility maybe, a homespun lab of some sort. He supposes he will know it when he sees it. That’s how it is in his job, and he has always quietly thought to himself that that is why he has been successful in his work. That, and something less easy to admit, that maybe he is never satisfied. Neither in life, or work, nor in love, he always wants more. It has made him a good journalist, this desire in him to search for more, but although he knows it deep inside, he has never admitted to himself that this same thing has left him alone, with a heart that nervously beats for fear of never finding. But something just clicks when he’s on the right track of a story, something just clicks. Like something clicked when he saw Merle’s face.

He finds himself back at the Cross House, and pulls out the map again, trying to decide where to look next.
It is getting late, but that does not matter, because it will not get dark. The flower moon is rising above the hill. He studies the map that Tor gave him.
It looks hand drawn, but he can see it is printed, and there’s a title and a price on the back of it. There is something about it that nags at him, but he’s finding it so hard to think. He wonders if he’s getting ill, it’s twice now that his mind has felt like this. Cloudy. 
With an effort, his head clears, and into his memory comes the image of the map of Blessed, the one that he’d saved on his device.
He realises that the map in front of him is not the same as the one he had recorded back at the office.
That one had two halves, a very distinct shape, like the two wings of a butterfly, though the western half slightly smaller, giving it a lopsided look. The two halves were joined by a narrow strip of land.
Eric looks at the paper map in his hand. Only the eastern half of the island is printed. Half the island is missing.
Now why, he thinks, would they print a map of only half the island?
That would be stupid. Unless, unless, unless you wanted to keep half of it secret.

© Marcus Sedgwick 2011

Monday, 10 October 2011

Special places

first posted at THE BOOKBAG

Another of those questions you get asked a lot as a writer: where do you like to work? Do you have a special place? Well, yes, I do have a special place - I am one of those lucky ones who has a shed at the bottom of the garden. It’s bright, and my fingers don’t freeze in the winter now I’ve put a woodburner into it, but it’s very small and won’t cost half a million pounds to move it when I’m dead (as we heard a week or so ago about the famous Dahl writing abode!) And I do love writing in there, but the truth of the matter is, when a deadline is pressing, or maybe when it’s even gone by, the best place to write is anywhere that works.

I was running against time writing Midwinterblood, largely because I’d written 10,000 words of something else that I then had to abandon, being unhappy with it. As things fell out, I was living on an island off the coast of Sweden, in a small hut, though a small hut with wifi (well, Sweden’s a modern place) and it was there that I wrote the bulk of the book. I knew a couple of people on the island, my landlord and landlady, and that was about it. I ate very simply, the fastest things I could cook, and I worked all day from early morning to early evening, taking usually one trip a day to go to the island’s single shop, or to go diving off the rocks into the warm (yes, really) waters of the Gothenburg archipelago. 

I suspect I went a little crazy with cabin fever, but the next time I lifted my head to see who I was, I had three-quarters of a new book. It all feels so serendipitous when it’s going well - having the idea at the right time, having the chance to be able to work on it, finding that it’s going okay, and I never take it for granted when it does, because any writer will tell you about the times when it doesn’t go well, as for example, when you have to throw away 10,000 words. Something I’ve now done three times in my life, and which, I suspect, I will have to do again, one day...

And here’s an extract from Part Three of Midwinterblood, The Airman

Hovering between life and death, the airman’s dreams are as twisted and broken as his fighter plane, which still smokes on a hillside a mile away. He sees weird visions of heaven and hell, and has a nightmare of running but being unable to run, as something chases him through fiery pits.
He groans in his sleep, and thrashes wildly, disturbing the hare that has been sitting nearby, watching him, wide eyes blinking in the near moonless night. Finally, as he wakes in early daylight, he dreams he’s being eaten by a dragon.

He sits up and screams, because his ankle is broken.
A beast scumbles away from him and he sees the dragon from his dreams, a large dog, a wolfhound. He collapses onto his back again, and with his thick leather glove he wipes his face, wet with the dog’s slobber.
Turning his neck awkwardly, he sees the lines of his chute stretching across a field of wheat. He’s made quite a mess, and suddenly panic takes hold.
He sits up again, this time avoiding using his right leg, the ankle of which is throbbing in a threatening way.
The dog has run away a few paces, but now sits watching him, panting merrily.
Where the hell am I? he thinks.
The last thing he remembers was that he’d managed to radio Petter before he’d had to bail out, but even then they were way off course, having made a run north to avoid a fighter patrol. What bad luck to hit another one. They’d come from nowhere and taken half the flight down before they even knew what was happening.
They’d been over the coast, God knows where, and he’d seen the lights of a small group of islands, and prayed he’d land on one of them, and not the sea, for to land in the sea would mean death.
He considers the facts, the chances of his survival.
His ankle is broken, he cannot walk. 
If his emergency kit has survived, he can inject himself with some morphine, which, while it lasts, will ease the pain.
The island on which he has fallen must be inhabited; this is a wheatfield, there is someone’s dog.
He knows this is not the mainland, but it could be almost anywhere else; they’d gone a long way north before the dogfight.
He’d radioed Petter, but maybe Petter didn’t make it either.
He decides not to think that.
Petter Åkare is a good pilot, and he knows he’ll have made it. He’ll report their position, and then…
Then what?
They’re not going to mount a rescue operation for one missing airman, even if he is a Flight Lieutenant. The best he can hope for is to make contact with friendly forces, get himself picked up by the Navy.
He’s just thinking all this when he hears a harsh voice, shouting.
‘Skilla! Skilla!’
He fumbles to pull his gloves off.
It’s a man’s voice, and it sounds angry, even if he doesn’t understand what the man is shouting.
He manages to pull his glove off with his teeth, and scrabbles for his pistol, but before he can pop the catch on his holster, the light is blotted out above him by the figure of a man. A large man.
He looks down and whistles.
The dog bounds over to him, begins to lick his hand.
‘Well, Skilla,’ he says, ‘what have you found this time?

© Marcus Sedgwick 2011

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Short stories and twisted tales

first posted at THE BOOKETTE

I love stories. I’m a writer, so that probably sounds a bit stupid. Of course I like stories, but I really really like short stories. So when I wrote this book which is composed of seven parts, each one like a short story, I also decided it would be fun to take things even further, and have a story within a story. The Unquiet Grave, the fifth part of the book, and whose titles derives from an old English folk ballad, is a ghost story, told from within a ghost story. If that sounds complicated, it isn’t too bad when you read it, I hope, though it did cause me a few headaches at the time. It is also one of the world’s only lesbian ghost stories, though I would love to be proved wrong about that, and probably will be. (Answers on a virtual postcard, please!) 

That’s why I like short stories: you can do odd things within them, experiment a bit, try things you might not want to risk trying in a whole book. Many writers made almost their whole career out of them: Poe would be a good example, many writers wrote many alongside their longer works: such as Hawthorne, and many writers never touch the form at all. The short story is particularly suited to certain genres as well, I find: science-fiction and ghost stories must be among the best examples. So The Unquiet Grave is my small offering to the traditional ghost story, with a couple of slight twists.

And here’s an extract from Part Five of Midwinterblood, The Unquiet Grave

Every night, at dusk, Merle would wander from her house, like a ghost, a mere shadow of her former beauty, and drift to the graveyard.
Every night, she would sit at Erik’s grave, waiting, waiting for him to return. Eventually, she would fall asleep, her tears lost among the steady autumn rains that pattered onto the freshly turned grave soil.
Every morning, she would stagger home to bed, a cold and fevered wretch.
Her father tried to stop her, but no matter what he did or said, Merle took no notice of him.
The days turned into weeks.
The weeks turned into months.
The months turned into a year.
And still Merle spent every night weeping at her lover’s grave.
As the year had passed however, something had happened to Merle, to her mind. It had grown tired, and been stretched beyond endurance, so that it tore, and so it was, a year and a day after Erik had been laid in the earth, that she went mad.

That night, as she slept on the grave, now well covered with grass, the gravestone softening gently with the turn of the days, she woke. 
The moon was bright, almost as bright as day.
It was a clear, calm night, as still indeed, as the grave, and she looked up to see a hare sitting on the grass, an arm’s length away.
She knew immediately who it was, or rather, who she thought it was. In her delusion, she thought the creature was her lover.
‘Erik!’ she cried, and when the hare did not run away in fright, the belief that she was right grew in her. ‘Erik!’ she declared again, laughing, the tears streaming down her face.
She put out her hand, and the hare hopped closer, and sniffed her fingers. She leaned closer, and the hare came right up to her face, to her lips. They kissed, lightly.
‘Erik!’ she said. ‘How clever!’
Then suddenly she realised something, and she sat up quickly. Now the hare bolted into the trees. 
‘But how,’ she cried. ‘How can I follow you? I must be with you, my love! How can I be with you?’
Though even as she said the words, she knew what she had to do. The idea formed in her head, like an apple ripening, and she knew what she had to do, and who she needed to help her.
On the hill, on the road out to the western isle, was an old woman, who knew the old ways.
They said she was a witch, and they were right.

© Marcus Sedgwick 2011

Friday, 7 October 2011

Vampires: The Vikings had them too...

 first posted at WONDROUS READS

It’s true. Years ago I was amazed to discover that vampires were known to the Vikings, at least, if their sagas are to be believed. In a couple of them, the Eyrbyggja Saga for example, the bodies of those slain rise from the dead, causing havoc, slaughtering animals and men, and blood flows. 

Some readers interpret these revenants as ghosts, but what, after all, is the difference between a ghost and a vampire? Not such a great deal. Both are spirits who, for whatever reason, come back after death, and the main difference is the association of blood drinking on the part of the vampire, the lack of corporeality on the part of the ghost. And yet, go back in time, and vampires, at least in the original folklore, are very rarely described as drinking blood, and the main difference seems to be more to do with where you lived, not what the revenant actually was. Eastern Europe has a strong vampire tradition, England does not. What we have here is ghosts. And yet, we dealt with ghosts in exactly the same ways that our Transylvanian cousin dealt with vampires: a stake through the chest, or mouth for example. Or better yet, both. 

To the superstitious mind, both of these frights, the vampire and the ghost, are just people trying to come back, with unfinished business to conclude with the living. And so are the viking vampires: often the victim of a domestic quarrel, the aggrieved party return after death to try and claim what they believe to be theirs: in the case of Midwinterblood, two children, twin brother and sister, whose uncle returns after death, claiming them as his own.

And here’s an extract from Part Six of Midwinterblood, The Vampire

The turning of the days became heavy and thick.
The short tide of daylight was grey and grim, as an unborn violence took root in the soil beneath the snows.
It was unseen, but it was felt by all, and it grew.
Very soon, it would burst up out of the ground.

Eirik and I clung to each other.
‘What will be?’ I whispered to him one night, as we lay in our bed, in the small room behind the longhouse. Our parents slept soundly, beyond the fire, but Eirik and I were full of fear and of wondering.
‘Why do they not speak to each other?’ Eirik whispered back. 
It was true. Mother and Father were not speaking.
Tor strode round the village as if he were the chieftan, not Father. Some sneered at him as he passed, others took his hand in friendship, and so the village grew divided, and quiet, and brooded.
Eirik and I shivered and shook, and waited for something to happen, and we did not have long to wait.

One night, the violence that had been growing between Father and Tor erupted.
At meal time, as we sat and silently chewed our food, the doors opened and there stood Tor.
I heard my father say, ‘Name him, and he’s always near.’
Heads hung, others lifted.
Words were muttered, as once more, Tor walked around the tables, and out into the centre, by the fire.
He stood facing Father and then, without looking at us, his hand pointed in our direction.
‘Those barn,’ he said, ‘are mine. They are my seed, and mine to own. I will have them to me.’
Father stood.
Now all eyes were lifted, and all hands shook.
My father stood and walked around the high table, into the centre of the great longhouse, and walked up to Tor, till their toes touched.
He said a single word to Tor, but no one knew what that word was, so quietly did he speak.
And then they were on each other.
I could not see who struck first, so fast it was, and it mattered not, because in a moment they were one beast, rolling in the dirt.
It would have been usual at such a fight for shouts to ring out, for voices to cry and for hands to hammer on the tabletops. 
But not this time. This time there was silence, and the only sounds were the sobbing of our mother, and the grunts of the men grappling.
I felt for Eirik’s hand and he felt for mine, just as our father’s and our uncle’s hands felt for each other’s throats.
It didn’t take long.
As they rolled, I wondered why it was that our father, some years older than his brother, seemed the younger. His skin was younger, his back was straighter, his arms stronger.
And his hands.
He was astride Tor now. Like a horse. Even at the awful moment, I remember that I thought it looked as if he rode a horse.
But he didn’t, he rode a man, and as I fingered the hare at my throat, Father’s fingers closed around the throat of his brother, and squeezed.

© Marcus Sedgwick 2011

Thursday, 6 October 2011

The Rite of Winter

first posted at READING ZONE

Parts of many of my books have been inspired by music: the chapter titles in White Crow for example, are titles of songs with related meanings, much of the Book of Dead Days was inspired by Schubert's epic song cycle, Winterreise. 

And Midwinterblood is no exception: lines by Nick Drake and Led Zeppelin are tucked away in the text, but the most significant source for the book is Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, which is probably the piece that made me fall in love with classical music, as well as modern music. I first heard it at the age of around 14 and as the saying goes, it blew my tiny mind. More energy than the Sex Pistols, freakier than Hendrix, many people know the story of how a riot broke out at its scandalous first performance in Paris in 1913. This story was actually somewhat exaggerated, largely by Stravinsky himself, but it's not hard to see what the fuss is all about. Even today, this piece, when performed well, is startling, brutal, raw and fundamentally unknowable.

The Rite concerns the pagan sacrifice of a girl in old Russia, and just the names of its fourteen short passages are enough to make my spine tingle: I stole some of them for the chapter titles in part seven of Midwinterblood: The Glorification of the Chosen One, The Kiss of the Earth... And one small part of Stravinsky's work was the inspiration for some lines in the book just before the climatic sacrifice. The passage known as The Sage is shortest of the whole work, often just around twenty seconds long, and is a very very quiet section with a weird, otherworldly discord to end it. Either side of this near silence, the music thunders and drums, pounds and shudders, and to me, it depicts the way in life that a moment of great drama or violence is preceded by a moment of calm and stillness first.
I'd long wanted to pay homage to one of my favourite pieces of music by incorporating some of it in a book: I'm glad Midwinterblood gave me that chance.

PS Here’s four pieces of music you can “find” in the book:
Stairway to Heaven - Led Zeppelin
Evocation of the Ancestors, The Rite of Spring - Igor Stravinsky
The Unquiet Grave - many versions but my favourite is by Lau
Pink Moon - Nick Drake

And here’s a short extract from Part Seven of Midwinterblood

The Glorification of the Chosen One

The sled is nearly at its place.
King Eirikr rises from the gilded throne upon which he has been riding.
He is covered in a massive fur of fox, and yet, as he stands, he slips the knot at its neck, and lets it fall to the wooden floor of the sled.
He is naked, yet he feels neither the cold of night, nor the deep of winter. His blood is pounding through his body. He tips his chin to the heavens, defiantly.
He is naked but for the narrow gold band gripping his head, the gold bracer of triple design, another symbol of the flower cult, the magic of which even now hurtles round his veins with the rest of his hot blood.

As if in an orgy of orchestrated genius, there is always a moment of silence before the violence and noise of the act itself.
Before battle, as the whole army takes in a breath.
Before the diver leaps into the water, and the sea pounds his ear drums.
Before the storm, the stillness in which a single bird calls.
Before the pains of birth, the brief rest between the spasms.
Before the all the other instruments descend in a maelstrom, the faint and strangled chord from the bassoons.
Before the ice breaks, before the tree falls, before the sword lands.
It might only be a fraction of a moment, but that time can dilate, can swell and grow, can fill the world around it with its power, till it lasts for a lifetime.

© Marcus Sedgwick 2011