The Golden Room #7 – Chantelle Smith

The Golden Room Episode #7 – Chantelle Smith

January 2020

Joining me in The Golden Room this month is Wiltshire-based folksinger/archaeologist Chantelle Smith, discussing her first EP, ‘The Gates of Elfinland’, as well as her wider inspiration, research, and ethos – with a selection of magical recorded and live tracks.

Listen here via Soundcloud

TRACKS

  1. Reverie – Rosemary Duxbury (intro)
  2. The Mermaid’s Cave – from The Gates of Elfinland (2018)
  3. The Grey Selkie – from The Gates of Elfinland (2018)
  4. White Wings (unreleased, from ‘The Hallows’ by Brighid’s Flame)
  5. Holland Handkerchief (unreleased)
  6. Rhiannon Rides (unreleased)
  7. In Brighid’s Hall (unreleased, from ‘The Hallows’ by Brighid’s Flame)

FFI Chantelle Smith visit: https://www.chantellesmith.co.uk/

 

Bad Juju in Cthulu-Land

Ballad of Black TomThe_Dream-Quest_of_Vellitt_Boe

A double-review of  The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor Lavalle (2016) & The Dream-Quest of Velitt-Boe by Kij Johnson (2019)

 

Since  H.P. Lovecraft first started forging his haunting singular vision – the Cthulu Mythos – in the first decades of the Twentieth Century other writers have been possessed with the need to delve into its dark recesses, from August Derleth and Robert E. Howard, to Brian Lumley and Neil Gaiman. In recent years Lovecraftian fiction has surged – narratives of vast, elder gods laying dormant in the Earth, unaware of the insignificant lives which transpire above, or watching on from Outside with inhuman indifference, these disturbing tales of an existentially cold universe at the heart of which is a madness-inducing chaos are undoubtedly affected by the times we live in.

Two recent reads repurpose Lovecraft’s problematic oeuvre in interesting ways, fully conscious of the accusations of racism and misogyny. Both by American authors, one is by a writer of colour, the other by a female author, each has taken upon themselves the thorny task.

LaValle’s story wryly reworks ‘The Horror at Red Hook’ (penned in 1925, and first published in Weird Tales in 1927). In 1924 Harlem, Tommy Tester is a small-time hustler whose regular guise as a street musician brings him in contact with reclusive millionaire Robert Suydam, who wants him to participate in a nefarious scheme involving the Great Old Ones. LaValle urban noir convincingly charts the everyday racism faced by people of colour in America – a situation which no longer seems ironically distant. In an interesting spin on the ‘selling your soul to the Devil at a crossroads’ motif of Blues legend LaValle boldly has his protagonist side with the priest of the Old Ones– for as ‘Black Tom’ (as he becomes after much suffering and provocation) argues: ‘I’ll take Cthulhu over you devils any day.’ The protagonist, in effect, becomes the antagonist – and the effect is edgy and disturbing. There is no comforting redemption here, only the catharsis of the Grand Guignol.

Taking a very different approach, Johnson’s picaresque quest-narrative could not be more tonally different. Basing her story upon Lovecraft’s novella, ‘The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath’ (also published in 1927), Johnson takes the geography of Lovecraft’s dreamscape, and some of the flora and fauna, but jettisons the Nihilism and suffocating fatalism. The effect is rather like taking a Certificate ‘X’ film and bowdlerising it into a ‘U’. However smoothly written (with occasional recourse to recherché vocabulary) Johnson’s narrative is little more a glorified travelogue, a Grand Tour of Cthulu-Land, neutered into a kind of Lovecraftian theme park. The lovely map in the front matter is a tell-tale sign. As Diana Wynne Jones observes in her Tough Guide to Fantasy Land entry about Maps: ‘no Tour is complete without a Map. Further, you must not expect to be let off from visiting every damn’ place shown on it.’ The inciting incident for this long journey is the disappearance of a star pupil from the Ivy-League-esque Ulthar Women’s College. It turns out this absconded scholar (who happens to be granddaughter of an Elder God) has run off with a shadowy, glamorous man from the Waking World – a kind of reverse Hades figure. Former wanderer Professor Vellitt Boe must track her down and convince her to return. Boe proves to be more than up to the task in her no-nonsense way. A remarkably obliging cat even decides to accompany her, adding to the Disney-ish quality to the proceedings. If one wanted to dig beneath the surface here, one could discern a mythic narrative – that of Demeter’s search for her wayward Persephone (or Kore, pre-pomegranate pips). Maureen J Murdock’s feminist reworking of the Campbellian Hero’s Journey, the Heroine’s Journey, could be easily mapped onto the novel’s structure, and that is no bad thing: for if the novel achieves anything it is in this regard. It is refreshing to have a middle-aged woman as a protagonist. The few male characters are selfish and self-absorbed, lost in status games and the narratives in which they see themselves as hero (including Randolph Carter, from the original story). It is in the ending – with Boe’s awakening in the poignantly defamiliarised waking world, that Johnson’s novel rewards the steadfast reader with some kind epiphany. The message is ultimately far more life-affirming than LaValle’s but strange less satisfying.

Whatever their merits, neither of these novels match the heights of Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country (2016), which for my money is the best Cthulu Mythos novel of recent years – soon to be a HBO series directed by Jordan Peele (Get Out; Us) and produced by JJ Abrams. It feels Lovecraft’s legacy feels more resonant than ever – its Nihilistic Cosmicism a perfect reflection of the zeitgeist. When reworked intelligently, as these authors have done, it can provide a dark mirror for our times.

Kevan Manwaring, 18 January 2020

Ombria in Shadow – a review

Ombria in Shadow

Ombria in Shadow review

by Kevan Manwaring

Ombria in Shadow is a fantasy novel by American writer Patricia A. McKillip, first published by Ace Books in 2002. It won the 2003 World Fantasy Award and Mythopoeic Award. This is a retro review.
Patricia A. McKillip has created an exquisitely-wrought baroque Fantasy in Ombria in Shadow, one that builds upon the foundations laid by the Gothic Tradition, as well as that of medieval Fantasy. A tale of changelings, enchantresses, tragic princes, and dastardly deeds,  at the heart of Ombria in Shadow is the dark tower of the palace, the centre of all intrigue, tragedy, and magic. There is a tangible sense of place – indeed, the palace is a character in itself, dominating the novel in the way that Domina, the ‘Black Pearl’ regent dominates the court, city, and country with her Machiavellian machinations. The claustrophobic effect of larger-than-life characters in such a confined space is Gormenghastian. This is compounded by the unusual prose style – McKillip deploys syntactical circumlocutions that curl back on themselves like tangled briars. This could easily be stifling, combining with the Piranesian setting to evoke a density redolent of Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, or of a Borgesian labyrinth. Yet the effect is more fey and dream-like, perhaps with a dash of Diane Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle. The social hierarchies are certainly codified by the architecture, a pecking order set in stone, but what breathes life into this highly ornate affair (which could easily become a recherché exercise in style) are the great characters – the fallen-from-grace royal consort Lydea, the amoral sorcereress Faey and her ‘waxling’ Mag, the black-hearted regent Domina, and the haunted artist, Ducon. Between them is a tangled web of love, hate, and deception. The court descends into knife-edged chaos when its ruler dies, leaving the only acknowledged heir – a young boy, Kyel – vulnerable and at the mercy of the smothering attentions of Domina. The doubling and mistaken identities that occur throughout are mirrored by the shadow castle which exists, hidden behind walls, secret doors, and beneath the city. This is the demi-monde into which the cast out consort Lydea is plunged – and we follow her down its rabbit hole as she jettisons her courtly attire (or is ‘relieved’ of it). This foreshadows the stripping away of illusion which must occur for the truth to be revealed, like layers of peeling décor in a mansion of decaying grandeur.  McKillip revels in the aesthetic of clutter, squalor, and decrepitude – it is as though the whole city-state is a diseased body which needs purging, a cathartic spring clean to blast away its corruption. However the strength of this novel is less in the plot, than in the manner in which it is carried off. There is a febrile energy here, and it is in her depiction of altered states that the author excels. One needs to merely surrender to it and by swept along by its fever dream.

 

Ombria in Shadow (Fantasy Masterworks), published by Gateway, 2014, is available here

Call to Adventure

King Arthur Way – a summer solstice pilgrimage to awaken your inner sovereignty

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King Arthur Stands Atop The Tintagel Cliffs in Cornwall,             Sculptor Rubin Eynon

We live in dark and challenging times, although at this point of the winter solstice it is important to remember that the light will return. Yet the world needs more than an increase in daylight hours – it needs a concerted renewal of goodness, of equality and justice, of moral integrity and wisdom. We need good leaders now more than ever – yet rather than wait for them to appear (and then almost inevitably to disappoint) we need to awaken them within ourselves, to be empowered citizens who take responsibility within our communities, workplaces, and ecologies; using our skills and resources for the good of all; helping and guiding others, especially the marginalised and vulnerable – to step up, seize the sword, and shine.

With this in mind I have devised a summer solstice pilgrimage following the legendary journey of King Arthur, from conception to burial. Starting at Tintagel in Cornwall, and culminating on Glastonbury Tor at the summer solstice 2020, the pilgrimage (approx. 140 miles) will take place over a fortnight, with daily walks averaging 12 miles (some may be less, and none will be longer than 15 miles). Each day will have a theme focusing on a stage of Arthur’s story, one you will be encouraged to meditate upon throughout the day, and share reflections upon in the evening – in the form of a story, poem, song, anecdote, prayer, or insight. Any aspect of the Arthuriad may be explored – at times we may find ourselves in the company of Merlin, Morgana le Fay, Guinevere, Mordred, Gawain, the Lady of the Lake, Lancelot, Bedivere, etc – but the chief focus will be the journey of King Arthur. Ultimately it is about awakening your own inner King or Queen – to find a place at the Round Table, whatever your talents or abilities. No prior knowledge of the legendarium is needed.

I have undertaken several long-distance walks solo over the last few years – the West Highland Way, Pennine Way, Offa’s Dyke, and so forth – and although I have enjoyed those immensely I have felt the need to create a more meaningful experience. Last year I walked the Coast-to-Coast, aka the Wainwright Way) and inadvertently turned it into an accidental pilgrimage (see my article in The Pilgrim). I realised I do not want to carry on just walking existing routes which often connect almost arbitrary points on the map – I wanted to devise a route of spiritual or folkloric significance. It was actually in 2017 that  I came up with the idea of the King Arthur Way – a pilgrimage route connecting Tintagel to Glastonbury Tor. I undertook a reconnaissance walk of the first stage, trekking from the north to south coast of Cornwall over a weekend. After experiencing the difficulty of that route (mainly due to the atrocious weather), I have reconfigured it, and now it takes an inland route loosely following the Michael/Mary Line – a major ley discovered by Paul Broadhurst and Hamish Miller, which runs southwest across England from the tip of Cornwall to Bury St Edmunds in East Anglia. There will be 12 main days of walking, with a full day at either end to experience the magic of Tintagel and Glastonbury fully. We will be taking what we need with us, camping along the way, with an occasional hostel for additional comfort and facilities.  The cost of the pilgrimage for each wayfarer will be essentially the booking fees for the campsites and hostels. If people are willing to chip in a support vehicle and driver could be hired for camping gear, musical instruments, and supplies. The main thing to bear in mind is – this is not a commercial venture, but a voluntary labour of love. I have devised the pilgrimage route as a practical way to enable anyone to experience the legend of King Arthur in a direct, visceral way; celebrate our ancient, sacred, precious landscape; and to empower future leaders. The success of the pilgrimage will depend upon participants pitching in, looking out for each other, collaborating with an open heart, sharing skills and resources, and taking the initiative when necessary. The right mix will be essential. With this in mind, if you are interested in undertaking this pilgrimage, then contact me with the details below:

King Arthur Way Pilgrim Application

  • Name:
  • Preferred gender pronoun:
  • Age:
  • Email:
  • Address:
  • Phone:
  • Any experience of long-distance walking?

 

  • In 200 words describe your reasons for wishing to undertake the King Arthur Way.

 

 

 

  • Any skills, resources, etc, you can offer (eg music, storytelling, poetry, cooking, First Aid, a support vehicle, etc)?

 

  • Any medical conditions or anything else I need to know?
  • Availability for a pilgrim meet-up/training walk over Easter (probably around Avebury):

 

  • Availability in June 2020 (the walk is likely to take place from Sun 7 June-Sun 21 June)

NB the walk is taken under your own risk. If your application is accepted, you will be asked to sign a disclaimer accepting full responsibility for your own well-being. All participants will have an informal shared duty of care, but nobody will be liable for prosecution in the unlikely event of an injury etc.
Please email your pilgrim application to kevanmanwaring@yahoo.co.uk  (Put ‘King Arthur Way Pilgrim Application’ in subject title. Attach as Word doc, but also copy and paste application into body of email).

Deadline for applications: 21 March 2020.  Numbers will be limited to no more than 15.

Wintering

THE GOLDEN ROOM episode 6 – WINTERING

December, approaching the year’s darkest night,
and the only way out of the dream is down and through it.
John Gardner

Winter landscape

In this episode of The Golden Room we delve into the deep dreaming of Winter, the year’s nadir, when things seem at their bleakest (especially at the moment…). Rather than drown out the howl of the north wind, or blind the darkness with blinking lights, savour the quietude, the long, dark nights and the short, sharp days with their promise of immanence with this selection of music, poetry, and storytelling.  Created and hosted by Kevan Manwaring.

LISTEN HERE: https://soundcloud.com/kevan-manwaring/the-golden-room-podcast-6-wintering

TRACK LISTINGS:

  1. Intro – Kevan Manwaring/Reverie – Rosemary Duxbury
  2. Political Lies – Robin Williamson (from ‘The Iron Stone).
  3. The Combe – Edward Thomas (read by KM).
  4. Downstream – Esmer.
  5. Welcome Song – Chantelle Smith.
  6. Northwest Passage/Franklin – David Metcalfe (from ‘Fire Springs sampler’/Rogues & Ravens).
  7. Winter Blessing – Carolyn Hillyer and Nigel Shaw (from ‘Riven Inside’).
  8. Breathing Earth – Gabriel Bradford Millar (from ‘The Saving Flame’).
  9. Just a Shadow – Fly Yeti Fly (from ‘Shine a Light in the Dark’).
  10. Solstice Sunset – Kevan Manwaring (from The Immanent Moment)
  11. Blessed Quietness (trad.) – Beggars Velvet (from ‘Lady of Autumn’).
  12. Lady Ragnell – Anthony Nanson (from ‘Fire Springs sampler’).
  13. All Heal – Kevan Manwaring (from Silver Branch bardic poems).
  14. Christmas Champions (featuring Chris Wood).
  15. The Snow Foresters – Kevan Manwaring (from Oxfordshire Folk Tales).
  16. Shine a Light in the Dark – Fly Yeti Fly (from eponymous album).
  17. Follow the Sun Road Home – Kevan Manwaring (from The Immanent Moment)
  18. Peaceful Water  – The Yirdbards (from ‘I Will Sing You This Song’).

Next Episode: 3rd Sunday of January, 2020. Wishing you a Merry Yule and a Happy New Year!

 

 

Of Dust and Dragons

The Secret Commonwealth: The Book of Dust Volume TwoImage result for john gardner grendel

A double review of The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman and Grendel by John Gardner

I really wanted to like Pullman’s latest addition to his Book of Dust trilogy (the follow-up series to ‘His Dark Materials’), because I love the original series, and I really enjoyed La Belle Sauvage. In that book we had tantalising glimpses of a magical counterworld to the one of Jordan College – itself a parallel or pocket-universe, similar to our world but with fascinating differences, not least the presence of daemons. Every human has one, and to be separated from one’s own is normally fatal. This new book pivots upon the premise that there are exceptions to this rule: Lyra, primarily, but others – as she discovers. These ‘untouchables’ are one of several kinds of ‘secret commonwealth’ in the book, but disappointingly, there is a telling absence of the magical reality glimpses in the first Book of Dust, apart from the odd fleeting glimpse of a will o’ the wisp. Witches are mentioned, but do not make a direct appearance. And the covetous fairy and the river-giant whose presence created an impressive shift of register (what I call ‘perilous amplification’) and mythic resonance, are sadly lacking. Considering Pullman has used the term coined by the Reverend Robert Kirk, and made famous in his 1691 monograph, ‘The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies’, there is little actual fairy folklore here, and no crossing over into this para-dimension hinted at previously. Frustratingly, at the very moment when a crossing of the threshold might occur, Pullman pulls the plug – ending the 2nd volume in a deeply unsatisfying place. The failure to deliver what the title clearly promises feels like a real missed opportunity. Instead, Pullman explores different kinds of secrets – which certainly provide numerous McGuffins for the characters to pursue – but it feels like the author has been reading too many spy novels, and this ‘Fantasy’ novel (which is how the series is marketed) works better on that level – albeit as ‘John Le Carré-lite’. Pullman is a craftsman and the prose rattles along – but it feels like the whole protracted nature of the project’s evolution (the author took over a decade to write it, famously vowing not to cut his hair until it was done) has led to tone seepage, with rather too much geopolitics and current affairs slipping (the migrant crisis in particular). It is admirable that Pullman wants to address these issues, but it feels like an incongruous direction for the sequence to go in. In the same way that he has felt behoven to include names of real people who have lost their lives in tragic ways – most notably a victim of the Grenfell Fire tragedy – this accretion of topicality and worthiness threatens to sabotage the whole project. There is a strong sense that Pullman is saving all of his best fireworks for the third and final volume – a big reunion with Will Parry and other characters from the first series perhaps? Unfortunately this feels suffers as a result. It seems to be mainly concerned with getting the key players from A to Z. Despite Pullman’s elegant prose, it suffers from mid-series bloat, and feels like an ageing Hrothgar, somewhat resting on his laurels as he reminisces about his glory days.

In comparison, John Gardner’s classic 1971 retelling of Beowulf from the perspective of Grendel, feels like the virile Geat-lander himself – swaggering into Heorot to set matters right in a world turn flabby and complacent. Eschewing the cliché of the doorstep Fantasy novel, it is far more Fantastic than many books that claim to be written within the genre. It shows a depth of imagination, and a delight of language which is often lacking in much modern writing. Gardner inhabitants the subaltern consciousness of the ultimate disenfranchised outsider with jaw-dropping briot. It is worth reading for the ‘performance’ of that extra-ordinary voice alone. Yet with fathomless invention Gardner cleverly weaves together a ‘prequel’ to the relatively familiar plot of Beowulf, taking us to same strange spaces – most memorably, to an encounter with the dragon which appears later in the classic poem. Gardner’s dragon is a worthy addition to the elite company of worms, dragons and serpents – pontificating philosophically like an old professor. Gardner plays with form – weaving in verse fit for the meadhall, script, parenthetical asides that break the fourth wall, and more. It is a tour-de-force of writing which is both playfully experimental and readable. Like the best kind of writing it feels transgressive – refusing to play it safe at any juncture. Like the eponymous anti-hero it tears down smug convention and challenges every false truth and cosily consoling fiction.

Clearly, Pullman is engaged in a very different project to Gardner – the latter is sui generis; the former part of an epic, and truly ambitious, Fantasy sequence (one that refuses to dumb down to its younger readers, or conform to its ostensible publishing pigeon-hole). Both aim high, and perhaps both succeed on their own terms: Gardner’s as a black swan one-off, and Pullman’s as part of the long-haul of his massive project. I am hopeful that the concluding volume of The Book of Dust instaurates the enchantment and vision of the earlier books, and that Pullman demonstrates the ‘fourfold vision’ of Blake he so eloquently talks about. Meanwhile, Kirk’s secret commonwealth awaits bolder explorers.

Kevan Manwaring, 10 December 2019

 

 

The Way of the Windsmith

THE WINDSMITH ELEGY COVERS

The Windsmith Elegy (2004-2012), cover art by Steve Hambidge

In the Hero’s Journey (Joseph Campbell’s imperfect, but still very useful mythic structure) there is a moment early in the first act when the protagonist receives the Call to Adventure – their invitation beyond the threshold of the familiar to the Special World where they will be tested, encounter allies and enemies, venture into the inmost cave, face the monster/their shadow/the big bad nasty, and, if all goes well, win the boon that will heal the Fisher King/restore the wasteland/make the sun shine again, etc. Well, recently I received a writerly ‘call to adventure’ – a publishing contract to write an interactive novel with an impressive looking West Coast start up. I am always firing off applications and proposals, so I had forgotten about this one (so many of them don’t bear fruit that’s it’s not worth holding one’s breath). It was a very pleasant surprise early last Friday. And a blast from the past – for the contract is to write a multi-linear narrative based upon my Windsmith universe. The Windsmith Elegy is my five-volume Fantasy epic, written between 2002 and 2012. I began the first in the series, The Long Woman, as my MA dissertation – a decade later I finally completed the journey of my protagonist, Isambard Kerne, an Edwardian surveyor for the GWR/observer of the Royal Flying Corps, who vanishes through a portal in the opening battle of the First World War into the Afterlands of his Celtic ancestors. To find his way home Kerne has to learn the way of the Windsmith – a master of the air, who uses the woodwords of the Ogham alphabet to summon power. The magical system is based upon my study of the Bardic Tradition, and the novels dramatise an initiation into their Mysteries. I put all my learning at the time into them – and wove in many of my favourite places (sacred sites), people (the ‘lost of history’), and mythological elements (chiefly from the Celtic tradition). And now my challenge is to resurrect this world, and create multiple pathways to allow the reader to navigate it by the choices they make. I certainly have plenty of material to draw upon – a large cast of characters; an extensive network of settings (set over four main lands: HyperEurus; HyperZephyrus; HyperNotus; and HyperBorea); and a quarter of million words of backstory. It is an exciting prospect – to revisit these lands with a fresh perspective, while engaging with a (relatively) new form of storytelling. As a youth I was very fond of the British ‘choose your own adventure’ books, Fighting Fantasy (stand alone adventures), and the Lone Wolf series (which had a ‘series arc’). Last year’s Black Mirror special, Bandersnatch, shows how, with emergent technology, this ergodic form of narrative can be cutting edge – and offer a myriad of narrative possibilities for the modern reader. I look forward to accepting the Call.

The Windsmith Elegy (The Long Woman; Windsmith; The Well Under the Sea; The Burning Path; This Fearful Tempest) is published by Awen.