Tuesday, 12 July 2016

The Japanese Willow Wife

My new novel – The Devil’s Serenade – features a most extraordinary willow tree, inspired by a real example of the species which grows (quite impossibly) by the river, near my home in North Wales.

I say ‘impossibly’ because this tree does not perform like your typical weeping willow. In fact it doesn’t ‘weep’ at all. It twists, turns, its branches jutting out at odd, serpentine angles. At some stage in its history, it appears to have been struck by lightning and, at certain times of the year, judging by the charred remains of burned out candles and various items of assorted bric-a-brac, appears to be the focus of some kind of ritual.

But then, willow trees have long been the subject of myth and legend from the stories of Orpheus in the Underworld to the present day. Willows are said to possess a heart. Maybe that can explain the strange sensation I experienced one day when I sat on one of the trailing branches of the willow near my home. Although there was no wind, the branch beneath me rippled. It felt as if it was breathing. I have only experienced this particular sensation once, but that was quite enough to inspire a story.

Who knows what provided the inspiration for the poignant tale of the Willow Wife which has passed into Japanese culture and tradition.

The story goes that, once upon a time, the inhabitants of a Japanese village were much enamoured of the magnificent and beautiful willow tree growing in the centre of their community. It not only charmed the people it also seemed to protect them from the worst of the winter elements.

 A young boy named Hiroshi could see the tree every time he looked out of his bedroom window. When he walked to school, he would often stop and breathe in its scent, marveling at its grace and beauty. Then some years later it seemed the willow’s life might be threatened. The elders of the village decided to build a bridge over the river and started to fell trees for their timber. Hiroshi was scared the willow might be next in line to face the axemen. He pleaded for it to be saved and even offered the men money so they would not cut it down. They agreed it should be spared.

Hiroshi now became more and more attached to the tree. He would whisper his secrets to it, stand underneath it and give thanks for all of nature around him. As he grew older, so he became more convinced than ever that the tree understood him and, in its own way, healed his soul.

One day, he came upon a beautiful young woman standing under the tree where he normally stood to say his prayers. 

 “Are you waiting for someone?” he asked.

She smiled. “He will not come.”

“But how terrible. What kind of man would not meet such a fair woman? How sad it is when love is not returned.”

“He loves me,” the woman said.

Hiroshi was now confused. “But why does he not come to you?”

Again, she smiled at him. “His heart has always been here, under the willow tree.”

To his dismay, the woman then disappeared. But she returned the next night and they talked – about the stars, the beauty of the peaceful night and the place where they were standing. The woman told Hiroshi that her name was Kaori, but she would say no more about her family or who she was.

They continued to meet, night after night, until Hiroshi was sure he had fallen in love with this mysterious and beautiful woman. He asked her to marry him and she agreed – with one proviso. “Don’t ask me anything about my past.”

Hiroshi readily agreed. He loved her as much as he loved the willow. Nothing else mattered.

The following year, now married, the couple had a soon they name Daiki. Their happiness shone around them. They were always smiling and laughing. But, as always, such happiness could not last.

The emperor of Japan wanted to build a temple to Kwannon, the goddess of mercy. He needed timber from all the villages – even the most sacred trees. The elders of the village decreed that the lovely willow should be their offering. None could compare with it. “It will be our most sacred gift for the most sacred of temples,” they said.

The next morning, Hiroshi and Kaori woke to the sound of the axes chopping down their beloved tree. In bed, beside Hiroshi Kaori shuddered. “My love, my hair is falling from my body. My limbs are shattering!”

Hiroshi held her close. “No, no, my love. You are having a bad dream,” he said and held her close.

Outside, a loud crash. The tree was felled. In that moment, Kaori disappeared, leaving Hiroshi holding a single branch of golden willow leaves.

Too late, Hiroshi realized his beloved wife was really the spirit of the willow.

For the rest of their lives, Hiroshi and Daiki continued to give thanks for their beautiful, gentle wife and mother.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

If You Go Down To The (Screaming) Woods Today...

...You had better be prepared to experience more than you bargained for. Especially if the woods in question are in the vicinity of the Kent village of Pluckley. Properly known as Dering Woods, this forest is more commonly known as the Screaming Woods – and for very good reason. 

The area itself is situated just south of England’s (arguably) most haunted village – Pluckley – where it seems almost every building and piece of land has its own ghost story to tell. Pinnock Bridge has its Gypsy or Watercress Woman who is supposed to have set herself on fire from a combination of the pipe she was smoking and the gin she was drinking at the same time. She wafts around as a misty figure.

The Elvey Farm has a haunted dairy where an 18th century farmer – Edward Brett – fatally shot himself. He is still heard, muttering ‘I will do it.’

A black silhouette of a miller haunts the site of an old windmill, while a red lady walks her small white dog around the churchyard and a white lady wanders around inside the same church. The locals at the time of her death must have really feared her. She was buried inside not one, but seven coffins AND an oak sarcophagus. She’s still pacing around there though!

An unfortunate love affair led to the suicide (by poisoning) of the Lady of Rose Court, and a poor man who fell into a clay pit still screams in agony. A schoolmaster who hanged himself is still apparently trapped at the site of his demise.

Now, after experiencing all that, you could well be forgiven for deciding to retire to the local hostelry (the Black Horse Inn). Surely here you could kick back and relax over a pint of foaming ale or a glass of comforting wine? Not a bit of it! After the phantom coach and horses have thundered by outside, expect things to start flying around you as the resident poltergeist gets to work.

But I digress. Back to the woods.

In the 18th century, a highwayman called Robert du Bois was tracked down and run through with a sword while he hid in a tree in these very woods. Another version states that he was dragged to the woods before being lynched. Either way, his are the screams which give the woods their name - along with a couple of other unfortunates, such as the army colonel who hanged himself and still can be seen dangling from his tree, and the ghostly soldier who wanders the woodland paths. Others who have simply lost their way - and never found it again - add their desperate voices to the cacophony from beyond the grave.

Sceptics might say it’s just foxes. Everyone knows foxes can make a terrible racket. As if hell itself had opened and let the screams of the damned escape.

But those of us who know about such things, don’t need any such explanations.

Do we?

Friday, 17 June 2016

The Changeling - How Fiction and Reality Intersect To Create A Novel

J.G. Faherty is one of my favourite modern horror authors, so when I heard about his latest - The Changeling - I had to learn more. Today, he tells us how this story developed - and how you can win a copy:

A few years ago, I came across some articles about how the U.S. military was experimenting with lightning as a potential weapon. At the time, I had some notes in one of my several notebooks of ideas about a young girl who develops superpowers but can’t control them. I’d put the concept aside because it seemed to common – another superhero story? Who needs that?

But the idea about lightning appearing out of nowhere to destroy things stayed with me, and I started adding to my notes. Lightning. Military weapons. What goes wrong?

Eventually, I received that Aha! moment all writers love. “What if the girl isn’t a superhero? What if the powers she has are hurting her, but she’s forced to use them anyhow?”

From there, the rest of the book came to me in a nice, tidy bundle. Girl. Struck by lightning. She survives, but starts to develop these weird abilities. Then she discovers it was part of a military experiment, and now they’re after her to figure out what happened, why she can do these crazy things. And after some thought, I decided that she shouldn’t have common superpowers. No super strength, no lightning bolts from her fingers or lasers from her eyes, she can’t fly. Instead, I decided to give her abilities that would be hard to understand, and difficult to master.

But every book needs a subplot, and it needs to resonate with the readers emotionally. In most superhero stories—comics, movies, books—these fall into 3 basic categories: romance, personal relationship with the villain, and the idea of responsibility. Spider-Man had MaryJane, The Lizard/Doctor Connors, and his Uncle Ben. Professor X has Magneto and his dedication to bridging the gap between mutants and normal folk. And so on. 

And therein lies a problem. When you’re writing a story, you want to work with what the readers like to see/read about, but you don’t want to just do more of the same old thing. You want to break new ground. Be original.

That’s when it came to me: this wasn’t a superhero book. My character wasn’t going to become the next Wonder Woman or Supergirl or Jean Gray. She just wants to be a normal teenager, to get her life back from the people who ruined it.

So I took some advice from an old mentor – When you’re writing a book, take your first idea and turn it upside down and inside out – and reworked my story in a way that allowed me to be original while still delivering the basic expectations of the reader. A love story? Yes, but not a traditional one. Relationship with the villain? Yes, and it leads to considerable problems. Responsibility? Yes. As a teenager, my heroine not only has to be responsible, she has to first figure out how to be responsible, something that up until now only meant finishing her homework, not breaking curfew, and getting her chores done. She’s thrown into the pool and has to learn how to swim, because the lives of her family depend on it. And she makes mistakes. Big ones.

Over a period of two years, I wrote the book, in between other projects. The original title was Lightning from a Clear Sky, but during the editing process it became The Changeling, a nod to the main character who undergoes so many mental, physical, and supernatural changes. It also evolved from the before-mentioned super hero story to a YA science fiction thriller. An experiment of sorts for me; I’d written YA before –horror, dark fantasy – but never sci-fi.

And now I’ve embarked on a second experiment with that book. Rather than submit to traditional publishers or small press, I’ve set up a Kindle Scout promotion. For those of you not familiar with this, it’s part of Amazon’s publishing arm. For 30 days, readers get to peruse an excerpt of the book and vote for whether or not they’d like to see it published so they can read the whole thing. At the end of the 30 days, Amazon’s editing team reviews the votes, reads the books, and decides which ones that month get publishing contracts. 

 What’s the prize for the readers who voted for it? They get a free Kindle copy of the book.

You can read the excerpt here: https://kindlescout.amazon.com/p/3SNA1TEAOMD0F and vote if you like it. There are other great books there as well – horror, sci-fi, mysteries, thrillers; adult and YA. You can nominate as many as you want, although only 2-3 per week. And Amazon tracks if you actually read the excerpt, just so writers don’t screw around with the system.

Needless to say, it’s been a nail biting experience. I’m only 2 weeks in, so I’ve got a ways to go before I find anything out. But if it gets a contract, The Changeling will surely be a project where fiction and fact came together like peanut butter and chocolate for me!

 JG Faherty