Asexual Myths & Tales

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

A Year in Blogs

I always like to do a review of the year, so at the end of 2013, I thought I would have a look through my blogs from the last 12 months.  Here are some of the things I have explored during my writerly journey this year:

Hairy worms
18th century music therapy
The natural partnership between writing and handicrafts
Locations in Britain and Japan that inspired Silver Hands
Comparing handless maidens with Juliet Marillier
Similarities between Shirley and Anne Lister
Al fresco flute playing
Androgynous hares
Head-banging in Gulliver's Travels
The magic of Swanwick Writers' Summer School
Fantastic short stories
Hidden dragons
Classical gods in Paris
Platonic love
A man without desire
Light-filled fairy tales
Narnian Christmas presents

Quite a year!  I hope you will join me next year for whatever 2014 will bring. 

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Christmas Presents: Bear Them Well.

For Christmas this year, I have returned to an old seasonal favourite: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  I am a huge fan of Narnia and of CS Lewis, and on this 50th anniversary of his death, it seems appropriate to write something about Narnia, as well as about Christmas.

You know what's coming, don't you?  Yes, I'd like to take a few moments to think about the gifts Father Christmas gives the children in Narnia, and some of the symbolism attached to them.

Peter's sword and shield 

Who wouldn't want to get these for Christmas?  These presents are a sign to Peter that he will become a knight.  There's an obvious connection with St Paul's letter to the Ephesians: "Put on the full armour of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes". (1) Peter will ultimately be called upon to fight evil in the form of the White Witch and her army.  The rampant red lion on the shield shows not only his alliegance to Aslan, but Aslan's presence with him even when it seems he has deserted Peter (as in the Battle of Beruna).  The strength and courage of the Lion will infuse Peter.  The same thing later happens to Lucy in Prince Caspian when she buries her face in Aslan's mane and, "could feel lion-strength going into her." (2)  Aslan tells her, "Now you are a lioness." (3)  Peter's future kingship resonates with such legends as that of Richard the Lion-Heart, the ideal of a king who is also a valiant knight.

But Peter does not become a knight (or a king, or a lion) all at once.  The sword and shield do not make him one.  Aslan only knights him after he has slain the wolf, Maugrim.  Peter has to prove himself.  This is reminiscent of Anodos in Phantastes (mentioned in other posts, and a great influence on CS Lewis).  Throughout his travels in Fairy-land, Anodos encounters knights several times and sincerely wishes to become one, but it is only when he becomes brother to two knights and helps them slay three giants (ie when he actually does something knightly rather than just dreaming about it) that he becomes a true knight.  And even then, there is more to learn.  Peter's journey is similar.  His transition from boy to knight to High King is a coming-of-age tale to which we can all relate.

Susan's bow, quiver and horn

In terms of the spiritual symbolism of the weapons (from Ephesians) it is necessary for all the children to go armed, to show they have the means to defeat evil.  But in terms of the story, Susan's weapons are not for battle, as Peter's are.  Her three gifts are actually accoutrements of the hunt.  With them, we are in another part of medieval romance.  Not battles and tournaments, but journeys in the enchanted forest.  We think of the hunt for the White Stag, "who would give you wishes if you caught him" (4).  Susan's gifts will help open her eyes to the magic of Narnia and give her oneness with its woods, its dryads and fauns, the creatures her sister Lucy has already learned to love.  The bow and quiver - let us not forget - are the chosen weapons of the chaste huntress Diana, so most suitable for "gentle" Susan, the girly girl of Narnia.  

Susan's horn is particularly special, coming again in Prince Caspian and other books.  Not only does it bring Susan help when she needs it, but it has the power to return the four children to Narnia in Caspian's hour of need.  This puts it on a footing with other legendary horns with the power to awaken sleeping warriors, such as King Arthur and his knights.  CS Lewis refers to this specifically in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader when he says: "When the Pevensie children returned to was (for the Narnians) as if King Arthur came back to Britain, as some people say he will.  And I say the sooner the better" (5).  The horn's power to bring back a golden past - a time of innocence and faith - makes it an antidote to Susan's growing cynicisn throughout the Narnia chronicles.  Not only will it bring her literal help, but it can call back a part of herself she is in danger of losing.

Lucy's dagger and bottle

Lucy (the valiant) is a very different girl from Susan, and Father Christmas has to forbid her from using her dagger in the battle rather than for self-defence, because, "battles are ugly when women fight" (6). However, Lucy later gets her own way as queen.  We are told in The Horse and his Boy, "Queen Lucy's going to be with the archers," (7) in the battle against Prince Rabadash.  The makers of the most recent films of The Chronicles of Narnia had an interesting take on Lucy's dagger, seeing it as a smaller version of Peter's sword, "a nod to the close relationship the siblings shared" (8).  Again, we have that linking of lion/lioness.  But, like Peter, Lucy will have to grow up some more before she becomes a true lion-heart.

Lucy's diamond bottle of healing cordial is her most important gift, and reappears in several books.  Lucy - the light-bringer - is also the life-giver.  Her cordial revives Edmund on the battle field (where, like Peter before him, Aslan makes Edmund a knight).  Aslan is the Great Redeemer, but Lucy is the redeeming child figure necessary to so many rebirth stories.  Her light counters Edmund's descent into darkness, and it is she who leads her brothers and sister into Narnia, both now and in Prince Caspian.  The film-makers had an interesting take on the cordial too.  They said: "Assuming that the fire-flower plant was one and the same, as the fire-berry bush mentioned in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Christian (Pearce, prop designer) depicted a moment from the story of Ramandu in which the Bird of the Morning flies back from the Mountains of the Sun bearing the fire-berry to revive him in its grip" (9).  Again, we see light, life and rebirth, as the fire-berry makes Ramandu younger and younger until "I have become as young as the child that was born yesterday," (10) and once again becomes a star in the sky.  Lucy's gift is to restore not only life, but a childlike sense of wonder to those she encounters, for "unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (11).

Three very different children.  The boy who would be king, the girl in danger of losing herself in the woods, and the innocent but valiant child redeemer.  Three perfectly tailored gifts.  Which would you like to receive?  Which do you think you need most?  Happy Christmas!

1. Ephesians 6:11 New International Version (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1973)
2. CS Lewis, Prince Caspian 1951 (London: Fontana, 1980) pp. 125-6
3. Ibid. p. 126
4. CS Lewis, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe 1950 (London: Fontana, 1980) p. 167
5. CS Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader 1952  (London: Fontana, 1980) p. 15
6. CS Lewis, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe 1950 (London: Fontana, 1980) p. 100
7. CS Lewis, The Horse and His Boy 1954 (London:Fontana, 1980) p. 152
8. Weta Workshop, The Crafting of Narnia (London: Harper Collins, 2008) p. 50
9.  Weta Workshop, The Crafting of Narnia (London: Harper Collins, 2008) p. 53
10. CS Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader 1952  (London: Fontana, 1980) p. 159
11. Matthew 18:3 New International Version (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1973)

Also mentioned:
George MacDonald, Phantastes 1858 (London: Ballantine Books, 1970)

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Curtains to the Darkness

As winter draws in, I become more and more inclined to read fairy tales.  Winter is a time for telling tales round the fire, snuggling up on the sofa with a favourite book, and revisiting all those old films, ballets and pantomimes.  I've always been a huge fan of fairy tales.  I'm not alone.  Stories that have stood the test of time and can mean so many different things at different times of one's life will always have avid listeners and readers.

But sometimes I wonder if I'm reading the same tales as everyone else.  There seem to be a lot of people out there (people I like and admire) who are always talking and writing about the darkness in fairy tales.  People like to say that the earlier versions of familiar tales are "much darker".  Short story writers are praised for "a wonderfully dark tale".  Now, there's nothing wrong with that.  I can admire a dark tale as well as the next reader.  But it upsets me when all people seem to see is darkness or - especially - when the words "dark" and "grown-up" are put together in a way that implies that a dark vision of the world is mature and a light-filled vision is somehow childish and inferior.  I've even had readers refer to my own fairy tale based novel, Silver Hands, as "dark", when that is not at all how I see the story, or its original, "The Handless Maiden".

The reason I read fairy tales in the winter - the reason I read fairy tales at all - is to bring light into the darkness.  To quote from a lecture I heard this week: Beauty, Truth and Goodness.  That's what I get out of fairy tales.  That's what I get out of the arts in general, and I hope that's what I put into them.  At the conclusion of the beautiful fairy romance Phantastes, George MacDonald writes: "Thus I, who set out to find my Ideal, came back rejoicing that I had lost my Shadow." * Fairy tales give me that same experience.  In their glimmering, fantastical world, the dark things - the flesh-eating ogres and hand-chopping devils - are only foils to the strengthening power of light and goodness.  I read of the struggle against them that I might lose the shadow within myself.  They are foes to be defeated, not delights to be revelled in.  That is reserved for the marble ladies, the palaces of gems, the flying horses and the enchanted harps.  These things work on my soul with the power of Allegri's Miserere or Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.  So this winter I will be reading fairy tales for their Beauty, Truth and Goodness.

And sticking the darkness where the sun doesn't shine.

*George MacDonald, Phantastes (1858) p. 211 (Ballantine Books, 1970 edition)

Friday, 25 October 2013

The Man Without Desire

watching the film in the mediatheque

Last week, I went to try out the new mediatheque at the National Media Museum.  The film I watched made a huge impact on me.  It was a silent film from 1923 starring Ivor Novello, called The Man Without Desire. It reminded me of Oscar Wilde's fairy tales, so it was interesting that the director, Adrian Brunel, based the story on an idea from an Irish playwright, Monckton Hoffe.  It also seems to draw inspiration from a poem of Robert Browning's,  "A Toccata of Galuppi's", a stanza of which is quoted in the film:

As for Venice and her people, merely born to bloom and drop,
Here on earth they bore the fruitage, mirth and folly were the crop:
What of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?  (1)

Like a true fairy tale, The Man Without Desire can be read many ways, but as it contains themes especially dear to me, those are the ones I will concentrate on in my review.

The plot

An Englishman called Robert Mawdesley finds he has been left a sum of money and a letter by his ancestor, Simon.  The letter tells of Count Vittorio Dandolo (Ivor Novello), who lives in 18th-century Venice.  Vittorio is in love with Leonora, Countess Almoro, whose husband is a violent libertine.  He tries to woo her and be a friend to her, eventually promising that he will help her escape her cruel husband.  But the plan goes wrong, as it gets mixed in with a plan of revenge by a newspaper editor whose fingers Almoro has had crushed for writing about his sex scandals.  Almoro thinks it is his wife who is planning to posion him, and makes her drink the drugged wine.  When Vittorio arrives too late to save Leonora, he is incensed and strangles Almoro.  He then runs to his friend, the weird scientist Simon Mawdesley, begging for a way out of his misery.  Mawdesley says the only way is to submit to his greatest experiment - suspended animation.  Vittorio gets into a coffin and is put into a charmed sleep.  But he is given some poison to take as a last resort if things don't work out for him.

Fast forward to 1923.  Robert Mawdesley and a doctor friend awaken Vittorio from his sleep.  There are now ancestors of some of the original characters (played by the same actors) who are their "doubles".  Leonora becomes Genevra Almoro.  Count Almoro becomes Gardi-Almoro, her cousin and suitor.  And, obviously, Simon becomes Robert.  Vittorio initially finds this very confusing, but then becomes friends with Genevra.  But there is a catch.  As a result of the experiment, he has lost all desire.  He has no savour for modern life and no sexual desire for Genevra.  He thinks he can restore his lost life and love by marrying Genevra, but this does not happen, and she turns to Gardi-Almoro.  When Vittorio finds out, he tries to strangle Gardi-Almoro, but is stopped by Genevra and gives up.  Feeling the futility of his life, he takes Mawdesley's poison, putting on his old, 18th-century clothes to die in.  When Genevra sees him dying, love is awakened in her and she kisses him.  This kiss re-awakens Vittorio's passion and he returns it as he dies. 

watching the film in the mediatheque

The Glass Coffin and The Ensorceled Prince

I was immediately struck by the similarity to these two tales, which I wrote about in my essay, The Glass Coffin and The Ensorceled Prince: An Asexual Reading.    When Mawdesley and the doctor find Vittorio in his coffin, there is a window in the lid.  They wipe off the dust and there is Vittorio, as young and beautiful as he was before.  The film lingers for some time on Vittorio waking from his charmed sleep.  His experience of rushing home to find the world changed is very much the experience of a fairytale character being returned from Beyond the Fields We Know.  He is like Sleeping Beauty, like Snow White.  Only he is a man.  (He does have androgynous beauty; I will return to that later).  Unlike Sleeping Beauty, however, he is not awakened by a kiss, not until he is dying for real.  And unlike Snow White, his charmed sleep is not caused by poison.  He poisons himself when he realises the life he has been returned to is hollow.

Is he more like the Ensorceled Prince, then?  Like the prince, he suffers great torment.  Like the prince, he goes into his charmed state (and his ultimate death) after attacking a rival man.  Most obviously, he seems to have become asexual when he awakes, echoing the tale of the prince who becomes marble from the waist down.  However, Vittorio's story could be said to be the reverse of the Ensorceled Prince.  For him, it is after his enchantment that he becomes the husband unable to satisfy his wife, ineffectively lashing out at her lover.  His fate echoes that of the newspaper editor, who was told that seeing his fingers crushed and useless will be a greater punishment than having them chopped off.  For Vittorio, being in the world with the image of his beloved Leonora, but being unable to fully engage with either, becomes a fate worse than death. 

Androgynous Men and Inviolate Women

As I said, Vittorio has androgynous beauty.  This is partly due to the casting of Ivor Novello, partly due to his 18th-century apparel.  For me, one of the saddest scenes is when he has to submit to early 20th-century clothing and a short haircut.  It is a physical stripping away of his allure and romance, and makes the viewer feel the same disillusion with the modern world as Vittorio feels.  In the final scene, the caption reads, "The sight of Vittorio's human suffering re-awakens Genevra's love."  But I can't help feeling that the sight of his 18th-century shirt is what does it for the viewer.  Ironically, the more "manly" clothes of the 1920s contribute to Vittorio's unmanning.

Leonora, when we first see her, looks like a Botticelli Madonna.  This seems to fit her role as a chaste wife and mother.  It is only reluctantly that she allows Vittorio to woo her.  At first she tells him, "It's not a lover I want, but a friend."  "Let me be your friend," says Vittorio, and kisses her hand.  Their relationship is romantic and spiritual - a contrast with the overtly sexual relationship between Almoro and his paramour, La Foscolina.  There is one beautiful scene in which Vittorio and Leonora kiss, and it looks as if light comes from their lips.  Leonora's descendant Genevra is different, however.  We are told, "And as Vittorio's acquaintance with Genevra improved, so did his knowledge of the modern girl."  Genevra does not look like the Madonna, and she wants more than a kiss on the hand.  When Vittorio confronts her over Gardi-Almoro, she says: "I never loved him... although your coldness nearly drove me into his arms.  I have been cheated - cheated."  It seems Genevra was prepared to go for loveless sex rather than live with sexless love.

watching the film in the mediatheque

A Soulless Age?

Vittorio is warned by Mawdesley: "Life may seem so different as to be almost colourless.  You may even awake to find yourself utterly without desire of any kind."  This is where I return to the quotation from Browning: "What of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?"  In Browning's poem, a toccata by Galuppi conjures up for the poet visions of a lost Venice  - a place of pleasure, beauty and passion - whose people are now "dust and ashes".  One can imagine how much more resonance such a poem would have just after the First World War.  The modern world had come for good; the old romance was gone.  Did any soul remain?  It's still a real question 90 years later.  One of the captions in the film reads, "The old-time spirit of Romance still haunts the canals of Venice today."  This seems at odds with Vittorio's story.  Unless he himself is the spirit of Romance, literally haunting his old home.  When he wakes from his sleep, he looks ill, a wraith of his former self.  When he is forced into 20th-century clothes, he becomes even more of a shadow.  He says, "I find life to-day so... savourless."  Vittorio speaks for many of us who feel we are simply living in the wrong era, longing for a land with more romance and soul.  (Which I would say is, in fact, a healthy, godly longing).  But then perhaps the pleasure-loving flappers of the Jazz Age were not so different from the fan-fluttering Venetians of the 18th century.  They were both, "only born to bloom and die."  Perhaps there is also a lesson in Vittorio's story that we should not seek to cheat death and live beyond our natural span.  Such a life would be both soulless and savourless.  

(1) Robert Browning, "A Toccata of Galuppi's", The Norton Anthology of English Literature ed. M H Abrams (New York: Norton, 1993)

Quotations and pictures from The Man Without Desire, directed by Adrain Brunel, from an idea by Monckton Hoffe. Rights held by Moving Image.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

What Plato really said about love...

Like most people, I'd heard of Platonic love, but I didn't really know what it was.  I had some vague idea it was about being "just friends".  I also knew that Oscar Wilde defended himself against charges of homosexuality by invoking some ancient ideal of a noble friendship between an older and younger man, but I didn't really know what that was about either, or that the two were related.

Things only changed the other week when I was reading a book about Leonardo and Michelangelo - The Lost Battles by Jonathan Jones.  It says that Michelangelo defended himself against gossip over his male/male friendships by invoking Plato's Symposium. It also quotes a poem by Michelangelo, which says:

Well, alas!  How will it be heard?
the chaste desire that burns the interior of my heart
by those who in others always see themselves?

This certainly struck a chord with me, and is very relevant for Carlo and Tammo's coming relationship in the next episode of my Angelio trilogy.  I decided I needed to find out what Plato actually said.

It turns out he said some very interesting things.  The Symposium is written as a conversation over dinner between Socrates and some other men.  (So a bit like the Book of Job, in that it explores issues through argument and different viewpoints).  I'm not going to relate the whole thing (you'll have to read it yourself!) but several things stood out for me:

1. It talks about Achilles and Patroclus "his lover".  As someone who really enjoyed Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles, I couldn't help but find this interesting.  
2. One of the characters argues that there were originally three sexes - male, female and androgynous.  (He then argues that they were split in half, and now always look for their other half, which to me is less interesting, but there you go!)
3. Two fantastic quotations.  "Evil is the vulgar lover who loves the body rather than the soul."  And, "Man should live in the contemplation of beauty absolute."  

So, what is Platonic love, then?  Basically, it's a spiritual love rather than a physical one.  Michelangelo was celibate and had "chaste desire", but he was in love.  So is my Carlo, in much the same way.  Plato says this is the most noble kind of love.

Of course, then Plato goes and spoils it somewhat with some ancient world sexism (and possibly ageism). This pure love, in his Symposium,  only exists between an older man and a younger man, with the older man being the "lover" and the younger the "beloved".   (The character who talks about Patroclus and Achilles seems at great pains to point out that Achilles was the younger and prettier one, therefore Patroclus was "his lover").  There's no reason in my mind why you can't feel a pure, chaste love for someone older and less pretty than yourself, why you can't feel it towards the opposite gender, and why a woman can't feel it.  I think there could be some prejudice at work here!

To confuse matters, the Neoplatonic school of thought in the Renaissance said that pure love could be spiritual  and physical.  (So it could involve women - or men like Oscar Wilde).  For example, in John Donne's poem, "The Ecstasy", the lovers' souls mingle as they lie on a bank.  But then Donne says, 

But O alas, so long, so far
Our bodies why do we forbear?

This seems like the opposite of Michelangelo's poem and, to my mind, isn't proper Platonic love.

Anyway, have a read for yourself and see what you think.  You can find the Symposium here:

Books used:
Jones, Jonathan, The Lost Battles: Leonardo, Michelangelo & the Artistic Duel That Defined the Renaissance, (London; Simon & Schuster, 2010)
Donne, John, The Complete English Poems, ed. Christopher Ricks (London: Penguin, 1971)

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Apollo & Diana in Paris


There seems to have been something almost mythical about my recent trip to Paris.  Three days.  Three Apollos.  Three Dianas.  The sun god and the moon goddess.  And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Apollos were overtly on show, while the Dianas kept creeping up on me.

The first Apollo was that of the Palais Garnier, home of the National Opera of Paris, and also the Phantom of the Opera.  Apollo stands on the roof, holding up his golden lyre in his role as god of music and poetry.  And the whole building - inside and out - is a fairytale temple to the arts of opera and ballet.   
Interestingly, the most magical rooms for me were the little circular Salons de la Lune and du Soleil (sun and moon rooms), where stars fall down from the ceiling and you feel like you're in the portal to an enchanted world.

Apollo turned up again as patron of the arts in the Louvre, and the Galerie d'Apollon (Apollo Gallery).  Again, this room celebrates artists of many types, as well as famous patrons, but it's also very gold - looking forward to my third Apollo, the symbol of a man whose portrait graces the Galerie d'Apollon, as it does so many other places.  The Sun King, Louis XIV.

Apollo is all over Versailles.  As is gold.  From the gilded gates to the overwhelmingly golden state bedchamber, Louis invokes the sun god to represent his own power and prestige.  It's no exaggeration to say that every night in Paris, I went to sleep with images of classical gods before my eyes.  And Apollo probably featured more than most.

But what of Diana?  I have to say that, by the time I left Paris, I was convinced she was stalking me!  (Which, as goddess of hunting, she may well have been).  Among the classical statues of the Louvre, there she was.  At first, I was quite thrilled to recognise this famous statue.  But, when I went upstairs, there she was again!  The exact same statue in 17th- century bronze.  And then in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, there she was again!  The third identical Diana!  I don't know how many copies of this statue exist, but three in two days seemed rather much.  Interestingly, the original furniture of the Hall of Mirrors was not gold, but silver.  This goes so much better with my fantasies of this room, and makes it seem like, in the midst of Apollo's realm, the Hall of Mirrors might belong to chaste Diana after all.

I went to Paris with the hope of immersing myself in a baroque fantasy, and now I certainly appreciate better than ever before the huge significance of the classical gods to the upper classes of the 17th and 18th centuries.  But I will leave you with a more modern image.  I had forgotten until my coach driver pointed it out that Paris was where the late Princess Diana left this life.  The spot is marked with a golden flame.  Apollo and Diana unite once more.

                                          (Photo from via Pinterest)

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Reporting Live from Bradford Dragon Hunt!

Today I'm trying something new - a live blog!  I'm in City Park, Bradford on Positive Bradford Day, manning a stall with my husband for something we call Bradford Dragon Hunt.

This actually started with my Bradford: City of Fantasy short story reading at Ilkley Literature Festival, in which I read stories inspired by aspects of Bradford, accompanied by a slide show of fantastical architecture in Bradford.  As a booming city in the Industrial Age, Bradford contains loads of Victorian gothic, which is full of stone dragons and other mythological creatures.  As a result, my husband became really interested in stone dragons in the city centre and started photographing them.  Today's stall encourages people to take part in a dragon hunt around the city, counting the dragons in three "hot spots" to receive a certificate.  We're hoping it will encourage people to look at Bradford in a new way.

As a little extra, I've also added a "find the hidden dragon" contest.  If people can locate a copy of Silver Hands in Handmade in Bradford and tell me the title of chapter 20, they win a prize!

If you're in Bradford, come down and see us.  We're here until 6pm.  If you're elsewhere in the world, what fantastical things do you notice in your home town or village?  Does it inspire you?

Friday, 13 September 2013

7 Magical Short Stories

I recently read a Top Ten of short stories from The Guardian, and I hadn't read any of them!  So I thought I would post a list of short stories that made a lasting impression on me.  They're all fantasy stories, and 7 is a magic number, so it seemed to fit together well.  

Smith of Wootten Major by JRR Tolkien
From Tales from the Perilous Realm
On a completely different scale from the epic Lord of the Rings, but with the same heart, this is a beautiful story about a boy who swallows a star which enables him to walk in the land of Faery as an adult.  For anyone who has ever felt, like me, that "I'm walking in the wrong land.  My generation doesn't understand".

The Kith of the Elf-Folk by Lord Dunsany
From Time and the Gods (Fantasy Masterworks)
It's very hard to choose just one story by "the master", Lord Dunsany, but this one really does linger. The little Wild Thing of the marshes wishes for a soul when she hears singing in the cathedral, so her people help her to craft one.  But a soul that longs for beauty in an ugly world is a painful thing...

A Tale of the Meadow Beyond by Sylvia V Linsteadt
Gray Fox Epistles, July 8th 2013
Of all Sylvia Linsteadt's beautiful Gray Fox Epistles so far, this one self-consciously evokes Lord Dunsany and his, "beyond the fields we know."  Based on the Estonian  A Tale of Tontlawald, it is a mysterious tale, in which a girl wanders into a meadow inhabited by strange, patchwork people, a black jaguar and a house no one lives in.  And she doesn't want to leave.

Tom Brightwind or How the Fairy Bridge was Built at Thorseby by Susanna Clarke
From The Ladies of Grace Adieu and other stories
Again, it's very hard to choose just one story from Susanna Clarke's collection, which takes us back into the world-view of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.  But I particularly like this one about an 18th-century Jewish physician who is cursed with the friendship of one of Clarke's narcissistic and opinionated fairies, who decides to accompany him on his rounds.  It manages to be charming, magical and funny all at once.

Everything Amiable and Obliging by Holly Black
From Steampunk!
This is a steampunk love story, in which a romance develops between a girl and an automaton dancing master, who is plugged into the house and connected to all other automata within it.  Told from the perspective of her cousin Sofie - who is repressing her own romantic feelings towards Amelia's brother - it is a tender and moving tale that questions individuality, love and free will.

True Thorn by Paul Blake
From Scheherazade #26 
I loved subscribing to Scheherazade while it ran, and this story made a big impression on me, maybe as much for the beautiful illustrations as for the story itself.  But it also stuck with me because it was the first story I read in which the usual conventions of fairy tale are made so ambiguous. The sorceress is the Sleeping Beauty, the torturer and the abandoned lover.  The prince is a naked slave who goes back for more.  Reading this influenced my writing for a long time.

The Fisherman and His Soul by Oscar Wilde
From The Happy Prince and other stories
This story made a particularly big impression on me because I saw it as a play first and read it afterwards.  The fisherman sends away his soul so that he can share love with a mermaid.  But the soul makes journeys of its own, and every year it returns to try and tempt the fisherman to abandon love and take it back.  Extremely haunting.

Have you read any of these stories?  What do you think of them?

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Fanfic Contest: Show us your silver hands!


Hidden Grove Extra is launching its first ever competition.  For fan fiction.  Yes, some authors hate fan fiction, but I started my adult writing career with fanfics (which are still being read and enjoyed by new readers) and I happen to think fan fiction is rather wonderful.  What more natural response to a story you love can there be than to become totally immersed and creatively involved in the plot yourself? So, the challenge is: can you write a fan fiction based on Silver Hands?  It can be any length, from a simple oneshot to an epic with chapters, but you only have 2 months to do it, and it must be posted on a reputable fan fiction site, such as  Share the link in the comments box below, and I will choose a winner after 31st October.  The winner will receive a signed, limited edition postcard featuring my flash fiction, "Laputa Sends Out the Fleet", and will be receive honourable mention on this blog and across my social media.  Simples!

So, to recap:

1.  Read Silver Hands.  (Obviously!)
2.  Write your fan fiction of any length based upon it.  (Fan poems also count).
3.  Post it on a reputable site. is ideal.
4.  Share the link in the comments box below, before 31st October 2013.
5.  Stand back and wait to see if you've won!

(Gratuitous sex, violence and swearing, racism, sexism etc. will be disqualified.)

The winner will need to provide me with an address to post the prize, but that will be arranged privately.  Good luck!