Posts Tagged ‘folklore’

The following is an edited transcript of an illustrated talk I gave at Inspired at Wirksworth Festival on Tuesday 19th September 2017.

I’m going to talk about a piece of art that was a very direct inspiration to me. But also about some of the other ideas and influences which fed into the creative process, and helped to shape what eventually became my second novel. I want to show the sometimes meandering route that inspiration can take, the seeming dead-ends, and the role chance can play in tying a lot of disparate ideas together.

Seven years ago, in October 2010, I’d recently published my first novel, Darklands, and I finally had time to think about what I was going to write next. I had it in my head I’d like to write a ghost story. I’m not quite sure why, but I’ve always enjoyed the creepy and macabre.

I did some initial research. I took a field trip to an Elizabethan manor house, Baddesley Clinton in Warwickshire, which boasts not one, but three, priest holes.

A priest hole is a small hidden room where Catholic priests could hide to avoid persecution during a time when it was illegal to practice Catholicism. This was because of various Catholic plots against the life of Elizabeth I. Catholicism was considered high treason, and punishments could include torture and death. When the authorities came round, a priest might have to hide in one of these cramped spaces in the dark for hours, or even days, before he could be safely released.

I’m sure you can imagine the creepy and sinister potential of a forgotten priest hole in a ghost story.

So I had a few ideas, and some atmospheric material from my field trip, but I didn’t yet have a story.

One day I was driving to work, and listening to the radio, as usual, and I heard Anatoly Lyadov’s tone poem, Kikimora.

Pleasant though it was, I can’t say it actually grabbed me that much at the time (though I’ve listened to it a lot since, and love it more each time). But what particularly struck me that day was after the music finished the presenter read out Lyadov’s program notes about Kikimora.

This is what he wrote.

“She grows up with a magician in the mountains. From dawn to sunset the magician’s cat regales Kikimora with fantastic tales of ancient times and faraway places, as Kikimora rocks in a cradle made of crystal. It takes her seven years to reach maturity, by which time her head is no larger than a thimble and her body no wider than a strand of straw. Kikimora spins flax from dusk to dawn, with evil intentions for the world.”

As soon as I heard those words it was a story I wanted to read. It conjures so much that is familiar from the kind of stories I loved when I was growing up, from fairy tales and folk tales.

Kikimora grows up with a magician – like so many iconic protagonists. Like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, like The Once and Future King, like many of Diana Wynne Jones’ books: Howl’s Moving Castle, Charmed Life, The Lives of Christopher Chant.

The magician’s cat can speak – like the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland. Like Aslan. And, again, there are many examples in Diana Wynne Jones’ books.

The cat tells endless stories – like Sherazade in 1001 nights.

Kikimora’s head is no larger than a thimble – bringing to mind classic fairy tales, like Thumbelina or Tom Thumb.

And like Rumpelstiltskin, she spins flax.

With just a few words Lyadov has summoned a storm of associations and memories – treasured memories from childhood, of the magical, fantastical stories I loved best, and that transported me to other lands and other lives.

But then right at the end, he gives it a twist: she has evil intentions for the world. So is she the heroine of this story, or is she the villain?

I wanted to find out. So I searched online for books about Kikimora – and I found nothing. She had a mention in a couple of books on Russian and Slavic folklore, and a wikipedia page, but I could find absolutely no fiction in English that mentioned her.

14-Kikimora

Kikimora, 1934 illustration by Ivan Bilibin

I found it incredible that seemingly no one had picked up on this gem of a story, when it seemed to me so ripe, so full of potential. I decided that I would write her story.

I read what little I could find on Kikimora. She’s a figure from Slavic folklore, a kind of household spirit. She often lives behind the stove, and helps good, respectable housewives who leave out offerings for her, but plays tricks on mean or slovenly households.

In reading about her, I found other fascinating figures from Slavic folklore, and they also found their way into my story. Such as Leshy. Leshy is a spirit or god of the forest. Like Kikimora he can be kind or troublesome, depending how he is treated. He can shape-shift, and can be very temperamental.

Leshy

Leshy, from a magazine cover, 1906. I’ve been unable to find the artist’s name.

Rusalkas also feature in my story. If you’re not familiar with Rusalkas, they’re basically a Slavic, fresh-water mermaid. They live in the water, are very beautiful, and lure unwary men to their death.

But again, they are not always seen as evil in early traditions. And I think this ambiguity in all these folklore characters is a large part of what appeals to me about them. They are largely reactive – they treat humans according to how humans treat them. And that seems a very obvious, but still very powerful way to view the natural world – which I think is essentially the purpose of a lot of folklore. In a pre-scientific and pre-industrial age, to try and make sense of the often cruel and capricious world around us.

These Slavic characters may well be unfamiliar to you, and you might wonder why I was so drawn to them and their stories. How could they mean anything to me?

But although their names are unfamiliar, there is much about them that is familiar. There is a universality in these characters which transcends their origin. The same tropes and archetypes are evident throughout British folklore, European fairy tales, and mythologies from all around the world.

Rusalkas have obvious parallels in mermaids, sirens, kelpies – our more local versions, Jenny Greenteeth or the grindylow.

In British folklore, we have our own versions of household spirits, like Hobs or brownies – or Dobby the house elf.

When I was growing up my family had our very own version: Icky. I’ve no idea where the name came from, but whenever something went missing or a mess was made that no one would own up to, we said it must have been Icky.

Even the very fact of being Russian seems kind of familiar. The Brothers Grimm collected their fairy tales from all over Europe – including Russia. And many of the most evocative and beautiful fairy tale illustrations have a Russian flavour to them. Such as the works of Jan Pienkowski or Edmund Dulac.

Fairy Tales, illustrated by Jan Pienkowski

Fairy Tales, illustrated by Jan Pienkowski

So I gathered a great amount of inspiration from these folk characters. I had Kikimora, my protagonist’s, origin story in the quote from Lyadov, and I had a sense of conflict or unease between humans and the natural world.

The inspiration that had eluded me when I was trying to write a ghost story came flooding in. I was very close to having a story. But one more ingredient came along which directed the course of the novel.

I mentioned at the beginning that it was October 2010. If you remember, it was during that time that 33 miners were trapped deep underground in a copper mine in Chile. By then the men had been trapped for two months. Their story gripped the public imagination, and it gripped me just as much as everyone else.

I have long had a mingled horror and fascination for underground spaces. There is something primal about being deep underground – think of the neolithic cave paintings of Lascaux and Altamira.

cave paintings at Lascaux

cave paintings at Lascaux

The common interpretation of these paintings is that they serve some sort of spiritual or ritual purpose.

Think of hidden caverns where incredible, gigantic crystals grow, such as Naica cave in Mexico.

Naica Cave, Mexico.

Naica Cave, Mexico. Look at the size of these crystals. It’s like Superman’s fortress of solitude!

Underground places can be beautiful, awe-inspiring.

But they are also dangerous, and frightening on a very primal level. All that weight of earth and rock balanced above you. The fear of your only light being extinguished – of the utter, pitiless darkness. Of being trapped. Lost. Alone. Being unaware of anything happening outside the cave – say, torrential rain that could flood the caves before you know a thing about it.

When those Chilean miners were finally safely rescued it seemed the whole world breathed a sigh of relief.

All of these things fed into the story I eventually wrote.

And in the end, I did write a sort of ghost story, without realising it. My version of Kikimora creeps around someone else’s home, silent and invisible, doing mischief, throwing things on the floor and causing trouble. Just like a poltergeist.

I even used the idea of being trapped in the dark – albeit, being trapped underground, rather than the priest hole I was initially researching.

I used characters and tropes from folklore and fairy tales – but they are very much my own personal take on those characters.

I seasoned it with the mingled terror and awe I feel about underground spaces.

And of course, in any story there must be conflict. In this case, another of my preoccupations, the conflict between humans and nature, between technological advancement and the exploitation of the planet’s resources.

Thank you for taking the time to read my story about writing a story.

I include below a short excerpt from Kikimora.

To set the scene, Anatoly is a powerful magician. He lives in splendid isolation in the mountains of Korsakov forest. Every month he plays cards with his friends, Leshy and the North Wind, and they stay up very late, drinking lots of vodka and setting the world to rights, as men are inclined to do.

Between them they try to ensure the natural world is all in order, and things are kept in balance. But they are disturbed by the activities of some miners from the nearby town, who are encroaching on the forest, and don’t show the proper respect.

During one drunken night they hatch a plan to deal with the miners by creating a monster. This Anatoly does, but his plan goes awry from the start.

He names his monster Kikimora.

Excerpt from Kikimora

Kikimora gathered up her embroidery to finish in the pantry. It was cold in there, but that had never troubled her. She was a creature of the cold, and though she enjoyed the comfort of a crackling fire, her resilience to Korsakov’s bitter winters was remarkable. She had never owned a pair of shoes, nor felt their lack.

She was almost at the door, when the North Wind said, “Wait. How old are you now, girl?”

“Almost seven.”

Anatoly’s long fingers fumbled as he filled the glasses, which all clinked and rattled against one another.

“Has it been so long?” asked the North Wind in some surprise. “Surely it is time?”

Anatoly swallowed his vodka at a gulp. “There is still much I would teach her. Her reading is sorely neglected. She has not yet begun The Art of War-”

The North Wind snorted his disdain. “She might have completed all the reading even you could wish for years ago if you didn’t have her working as your skivvy all the day long! I heard your banshee wail,” he told Kikimora. “It wasn’t too bad. What else can you do? Can you sour the milk with an evil thought?”

Kikimora nodded.

“Can you hide from human eyes? Creep past men silent and unnoticed?” Two more nods.

“Can you send bad dreams to trouble the sleep of man, woman or child?”

She hesitated.

“Well?”

“I have no one on which to practice such a skill.”

The North Wind frowned and harrumphed. “What of that cat I’ve seen around the place? Surely you could disturb its sleep?”

Kikimora’s eyes grew wide at this suggestion, and Anatoly muttered that it was more than any of their lives were worth to interfere with the cat.

Leshy took a bite of cake, and exclaimed at its sweetness. Washing it down with a mouthful of vodka, he added that he’d never tasted finer spirit. Kikimora knew he was trying to cheer her up, and she summoned a smile to show she appreciated it.

“Congratulations,” the North Wind said sourly. “Your monster is a fine cook and house-keeper. How those men will tremble in their boots.”

I have been so busy promoting Darklands, that I haven’t had much chance to work on my new novel, Kikimora recently. The first draft was completed some months ago, but I’m still in the middle of a large edit and rewrite.

This is the first chapter:

Anatoly took a card from the pile, sighed, and laid it back down on the table. “They have trampled a road all the way across the lower slopes and up to their infernal workings,” he said. “Once the river ran cold and clear. Now it is bitter with sulphur. The Rusalka have been driven from their home. It is bad, my friends, bad indeed.”

“But what is to be done?” asked Leshy, picking fretfully at the dried leaves caught in his beard.

The North Wind puffed out his ruddy cheeks, and roared, “They need teaching a lesson! They’re getting too big for their boots.”

“Another dozen trees felled today,” said Leshy. “That makes-” He paused, bringing short, hairy toes up to the table to assist his counting. But finding that he was still far short of the necessary digits, threw his hands up in the air. “Too many! Too many of my trees hacked down and burned. And not a single token or sacrifice left in exchange. My time is done. I may as well lay down and die right now.”

Leshy’s gloom made the North Wind chuckle, and his wheezy gusts blew the playing cards from the table so that they fell all in disarray upon the flagstones. Leshy complained that he’d just built a good hand, but that it was now lost – as all his endeavours seemed doomed to failure and insignificance.

That made the North Wind laugh even more, so that spiders fell from the roof beams down onto the dresser, and one fell into Leshy’s hair. But Leshy didn’t notice, and the spider seemed quite content there.

Anatoly said nothing, but drummed his long fingers on the table top. It was dark with grease, and splashed with tallow drips from countless candles. The squalor of it irked him all of a sudden. He found himself imagining Yevgenia’s pretty nose wrinkling in distaste, and he determined that tomorrow he would take the time to clean the kitchen – perhaps the entire house. And then he fell to thinking about all the other parts of Yevgenia, just as pretty as her nose, and for a time he forgot all about the problem of the mine, and the men and the road and the town…

“Life is too easy,” said the North Wind. “That is the problem. They have no hardships, and so they are free to poke and meddle and delve and steal. In the olden times-” Here, Anatoly rolled his eyes, and Leshy gave a discreet little sigh. “In the olden times, they had no time for such nonsense. They were too busy fending off lions. Finding bison to hunt. Discovering which berries were good to eat and which would turn their guts to slop. All the time fearing that the sky might fall on their heads. I had only to whip up a little thunderstorm and they ran whimpering to their caves! Now they are idle. That’s the nub of it. They are bored. And so they breed mischief.”

“So,” said Anatoly. “What you’re saying is that they need some distraction? If some calamity were to befall them, they might be too busy to come plundering my mountain and Leshy’s forest?” He drained his glass thoughtfully, only grimacing a little at the harsh taste of the vodka. He distilled it himself from turnip peelings and sorghum, and the flavour was highly distinctive.

“But I have set traps. I have raised fires. I have confounded and befuddled them. Still they come back. More and more of them, like ants from a woodpile.” He glanced at the North Wind, a little fearfully, a little hopefully. “Perhaps if you were to-?”

“Oh!” The North Wind’s sigh rattled the pans hanging in the pantry, and toppled a platter from the dresser. “I would love to help, of course,” he said. “But my time is barely my own. You know how hard it is for me to even find the leisure for our card games every now and again. There is not a town in the world I don’t visit. Not an hour of the day I can rest. My duties are endless.”

“Then it is over,” lamented Leshy. “Before long we shall be driven from our homes, like the poor Rusalka. Cast friendless and alone into an uncaring world…”

“You are not without talents, though?” The North Wind’s voice was soft now, but still it sent a cold breeze down the back of Anatoly’s neck. “I have heard your skill in artifice is without compare.”

“Well,” said Anatoly, blushing and smiling, and trying not to smile. “I have studied the moon, the sun and the stars. I have studied the movements of beasts, and the flights of birds. I have learned the language of flowing water and what the trees whisper to one another through the long, cold winters.”

“I understand the trees and the beasts,” Leshy interjected. “They tell me all their problems – whether I wish it or not. You can’t imagine how birds prattle on. And the insects are as bad…”

“Fine accomplishments,” nodded the North Wind. He thought for a moment, then continued, “Tell me, when the men come to fell your trees, what do they use?”

“An axe,” said Leshy unhappily.

“And when you want to turn a field, ready for planting, what do you use?”

“An iron plough,” said Anatoly, and, “Oxen,” replied Leshy.

“And when you distil your vodka, what do you use then?” the North Wind asked Anatoly, who gestured to the large brass kettle hanging from the rafters with his other pans.

“You use a tool appropriate to the task. So, finding yourselves unequal to the task of driving the men from your mountain, what tool do you suppose might assist you?”

Anatoly was silent a while, pondering this. Then a sudden brightness flared in his eyes. He looked up at the North Wind and answered, “A monster. We need a monster to do what we cannot.”

The North Wind nodded thoughtfully. “I expect someone of your dexterity could create a monster the like of which had never before been seen or imagined.” His voice dropped lower, but it whistled around the eaves of the house, quick and cold as a knife. “I expect someone of your learning could create a monster of pure malevolence; cold, unforgiving, incorruptible. I expect such a monster could drive these men far from your mountain, and from Leshy’s forest. You would both be left in peace. The Rusalka could return to their streams and pools. And you could resume your studies, undisturbed by their endless hammering, blasting and grinding.”

Anatoly glanced at Leshy, who nodded encouragingly.

“I suppose…” answered Anatoly. “I suppose it could be done…”