Tag Archives: Pagan

Dark Sister – a review

Dark Sister coverThis is a contemporary fantasy set in Joyce’s native Leicestershire – an East Midlands he has mythologized without losing any of its prosaicness. And it is this context of down-to-earth realism which anchors the uncanny elements that threaten to overwhelm the lives of the family at its heart. One day, when their chimney is being swept (a folklorically-rich activity) an old diary is found in the chimney breast. This inciting incident turns the world of archaeologist Alex, his wife Maggie and their children Amy and Sam, upside down – for the diary is that of a witch called Bella, whose ‘herbal remedies’ piques the curiousity of Maggie. At first she uses them to heal minor ailments, but in her experimentation she pushes the borders of safety, freedom and sanity. As she gets sucked into the supernatural her marriage suffers catastrophically. Meanwhile Alex is engrossed in a dig which unearths evidence of a ritual burial – his wife’s burgeoning ‘sixth sense’ locates the find. The couple simultaneously dig down into the dark stuff – and the book is very much about acknowledging the Shadow. Demons within both of them are unlocked. This psychological aspect is made explicit by the need to consult a Dr De Sang, who first examines Sam (who acts out the dysfunctionality of the marriage) and then Maggie (who starts to show signs of personality disorder/possession). As with many of Joyce’s books, the uncanny is always given a psychological ‘reading’, so we, the reader, can decide which paradigm to opt for. This creates a tension lacking in many fantasy novels where the incredible is a ‘given’. Joyce’s characterisation and dialogue is utterly convincing – well-observed, nuanced, complex. He makes his protagonists feel real and so we care for them. These are not superhero cut-outs. There is a deep humanity in his work, one that is life-affirming and celebratory of the daily miracles of existence. It gives voice to the fragility of our lives – how easily they are disrupted, are destroyed. As the ‘dark sister’ of the title invades first Maggie’s mind and the hearth the family unit is caught in a hex of buried hurt, a centuries old grievance narrative left to fester beneath the city centre until brought to light* both in the discovered diary and the dig. Maggie’s frustrated career becomes emblematic of the stifled voices of generations of women – controlled or silenced by fearful men – and yet it is the women who, as in many of Joyce’s books, provide the powerhouse of the narrative: Maggie; Bella; Liz, an old wise woman; Amy the daughter; ‘A’, a shadowy other controlling Bella; even the anagramic Anita (mistress) and Tania (archaeology student/’babysitter’). The male characters (Alex, De Sang, Sam, and Ash) are, with the exception of Ash, the owner of an occult shop, less appealing, less sympathetic. Both Alex and De Sang stand in the ‘rationalist’, scientific camp – facing the mysterious, depthless realm of the feminine with their ineffectual tools. A renegotiation between the genders needs to occur, addressing ancient inequalities – like an intercenine conflict destroying a country, Alex and Maggie’s ‘civil war’ is destroying their home and family. The power of the female must be acknowledged, but also the power of the unknown, the other. Reality is not ruled by what is on the surface.

The use of the diary is of particular interest – as Maggie reads it more is revealed, as though the act of reading is in itself a magical act. It is interwoven with the narrative. At first only obscure lists of herbs and coded inscriptions can be deciphered, but slowly a voice emerges. The past is translated. This embedded book of magic acts as an agent of change within the narrative – disruptive and disturbing, reminding us that words have power and consequences.

As with all of Joyce’s oeuvre, Dark Sister is effortlessly readable and utterly gripping. You know you are in the hands of a warlock of words, one who casts a spell which you do not want to break. The catharsis that comes with this walk on the wild side is powerful and lingering for both the protagonists and reader. Literary flying ointment, this novel is one visceral ride from start to finish.

Kevan Manwaring

20 February 2015

*It’s amazing what you can discover beneath a city centre. This feels like a timely book to read in the year of Richard the Third’s burial – the ‘king under the car-park’, another maligned, ‘shadow’ figure brought out into the light. 

Smooring the Hearth

Solstice Sunset

Resisting night’s gravity

I rise to the Heavens,

clay on boots,

dusk at my heels,

slipping up to the

lonely grove on the brow,

where a year ago,

we planted a circle of hope.

Now I stand alone

in silent vigil.

Aurora of the day

sliding away, behind

Rodborough’s bear shoulders.

It is a satisfying death –

a great actor’s swansong.

A star born for this moment.

The lights fade, and, on cue,

another nova.

No desecrating ruckus

at a stone circle is needed

to mark this annual valediction – leave

the vandals to their

trilithon abuse and stoned selfies.

I have no need of the Am-dram

of dodgy rituals,

the posturing of ill-cast hierophants.

My gaze is for the sun alone.

Quietly, I say goodbye.

Burning News

The old year

is an empty grate,

solstice-black and cold

as a spurned lover’s heart.

Waiting to be filled with

kindling – scrunched news,

or the celebrity tittle-tattle

that passes for it

these days,

fat splinters of shattered tree,

glottal stops of coal,

black bile of angry mines,

the simmering earth

beneath our feet. Its fury

on slow-burn. The fuse of

ancient forests sizzle.

Coal scuttle, clatter and clinker.

With the rasp of a match,

paper curls, catching flame –

spreading like hungry gossip.

Inflammatory rumours

blaze into headlines of fire,

snagging our gaze.

We try to turn away,

but too late.

We’re hypnotized.

Smooring the Hearth

The clock ticks towards

the midnight chimes.

The sands of the year drain away.

Sip your anaesthetic,

reflect upon all that has gone,

the deeds un/done, the words un/said.

Bank the fire down, my friend,

before going to bed.

The memories glow and fade

like the coal, slow time

locked in its fossil heart.

Each a dream, once cherished,

come morn, a pail of dust

to be scattered on the dormant earth.

The day a squall of rain,

the nights come as fast.

The solsticed sun instructs us

to hiatus, to put down our tools.

Endless struggle, surrender arms,

as the Christmas ceasefire commences.

For a while we no longer

have to be anything.

Merely drop down into our being.

It is okay, friend, we can stop buying.

We can stop pretending to be nice,

so desperate to be loved back,

to be popular. For surely,

this is the measure of success.

That, and how much you own.

What you can show off to visitors,

the guests guessing your soul

from what’s on your shelves.

Shallow the depths of society’s

criteria. As though our lives

are no more than a lifestyle magazine,

a trending meme.

The fire dies down,

and what is discarded

slips through the bars of the grate.

Leaving the sine qua non of embers –

the truth only found

at the eleventh hour,

say, on the eve of execution,

when we face the cold, naked fact

of our mortality, our swift sparrow-flight

the length of a mead-hall.

Yet still, we bank the fire down –
thanking the warmth and light it has

bestowed, its borrowed grace –

in the hope that come dawn,

the last star can rekindle

our wintering king,

before it winks out

vanishing with the night.

Poems copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

Vikings and Fairies

21-22 April


Last weekend (20-21 April) took the Great Road North (well, rail – enduring the so-called ‘quiet carriage’) to visit charmingYork (all cobbles and cream teas), where I gave a talk on my book Turning the Wheel on Saturday at PF NE, alongside my fellow Awenaut, Karola Renard. We went up on the Friday and met up – doing the tourist thing and visiting the Jorvik Centre to get a whiff of life in York (literally) in the Viking Age. The faint aroma of a Viking midden assailed our nostrils as we entered – all part of the experience! The exhibition felt a bit virtual at first – all computer screens and a ‘discotheque’ perspex floor revealing the level of the city in the Viking Age (showing the foundations of a house from that period – well, a reconstruction of one excavated on the site). Fortunately live interpreters were on hand to stop it getting all too cyberspacey – and they knew their stuff. We were ushered onto a kind of ghost train by a cunning woman – and taken around a Viking village, inhabited by lifelike hairy folk in their respective domiciles. Pretty impressive, if surreal.

Later, we hooked up with some of the delegates in the authentic Fifteenth Century Inn, The Black Swan – complete with ‘drunken’ stairs and resident ghost (nothing unusual in York – which has created a tourist industry from its spooks). The pagans seemed friendly enough – especially after a couple of local ales (Brainsplitter, or some such). Ola and I were kindly put up by respective hosts and met again in the morning at the conference in Priory Street. We were on straight away – something of a strain after a lively night and lack of breakfast. I managed to grab a coffee and a pastry – which I munched as audience filtered in. Couldn’t get the projector to work – but I didn’t need it. I can waffle for Britain on any of my books.

Afterwards, I browsed the stalls and chatted to some creative folk, including FAE artist Tamara Newman.

I couldn’t stick around for the end of the day – my pumpkin carriage awaited – to ‘whisk’ my back to Stroud (four hours later…)

It was interesting to visit York – a fascinating picturesque city – which features in of my yet-to-be-published novel, Thunder Road – a contemporary fantasy about Vikings, Bikers and the end of the world.

The next day I did a big rideout – all around Oxfordshire – visiting sites connected with my collection of Folk Tales (commissioned by The History Press, and due out in November). I recorded half a dozen stories in situ – which was very resonant. It was an effective way to commune with the genius loci and ‘give something back’ – returning the art to the source of its inspiration. It was definitely a sense of ‘full circle’ – as I circumnavigated the county over eight hours – hitting a monsoon-like downpour on the way back (perhaps Thor was making his presence felt…).Yet, despite the soaking it was worth it – I had visited the original ‘rabbit hole’ (Binsey’s treacle well); the birthplace of the Otmoor Uprising; Garsington; Clifton Hampden and Wittenham Clumps – the latter, the location for one of the stories I performed the following night with my fellow Fire Springs members at Hawkwood College for our Spirits of Place show. It was powerful to tell the story of the Raven of Sinodun Hill there, on the Clumps – especially when a large raven circled over me just as I departed.

There seems to be an ‘ecology’ connecting ‘fairies’ and spirits of place – indeed they seem to be one and the same in some traditions. In Hellenic Mythology every stream, spring, cave, tree and mountain had its resident spirit or spirits: undines, naiads, sylphs, etc. These  elemental nymphs become the fairies of the Celtic Tradition – residing in ‘Fairy Thorns’, sacred wells and so on. When Nature is littered, polluted,  exploited or tamed – they whither, leave or die.

The ‘fairies’ of York are well looked after by the supernatural tourist industry there – the ghosts are fed by the energy of the hordes of visitors and the oxygen of the stories. They love to hear about themselves. I hope the spirits of place of Oxfordshire will be kept happy by my efforts.



Winter Solstice poem

Solstice Sunset at Stoney Littleton

Solstice Sunset at Stoney Littleton

Here’s a poem I wrote after witnessing winter solstice at Stoney Littleton long barrow three years ago.




Follow the Sun Road Home


Awakening to a dreaming world,

The road winding,

The mist rising,

Shadows in the valleys,

Ancient shapes in the land.


Crossing the faerie bridge with a kiss,

The brook running deep and clear,

Climbing through fields wet with tears,

To the slumbering barrow on the hill,

The door to the Otherworld is there still.


Follow the sun road home

Called by the song of the Sidhe.

Follow the sun road home,

Over the westering sea –

Beyond this world of bones

To the place where the spirit is free.


Within the chambered tomb

We wait for the crack of dawn.

Within the dripping darkness

We wait to be reborn.


In the stillness and the silence

We listen to our forefathers.

Before the horn of solstice blows

We heed the heartbeat of the mother.


Then we feel the thrill of Earth’s quickening.

The gathered hold their breath,

Gaze through the grey –

Wordlessly praying for

A Grail for the sickening.




A  swift kestrel takes wing

The new sun has risen.

Friends depart and wheels turn –

May we meet over the



Follow the sun road home,

Follow the sun road home.

Down the hollow lanes,

And shining leys,

Following the sun road home.


Winter Solstice, 21st December 2005  Kevan Manwaring

Bardic Poetry: Last Rites for John Barleycorn

Last Rites for John Barleycorn



Roam with me…


Through the Gates of Herne

To find a kernel of truth,

Confront the stag of the seventh tine,

Decode the marks of his horned hoof.


Down the familiar paths we trod,

Frequenting our earlier selves;

Sharing our picnic of the past –

Feasting with Pooka and his Elves.


Then over the bloodstream

And through the iron turnstiles,

Two into one –

Led by the Maiden of the Corn

To the barrow to be reborn.


Along a tunnel to the light –

Spurred on sperm, a wheaten worm,

Wisely upstream wriggling.

To germinate where we are but a gleam –

Prodigal suns returning.


Walking between the worlds,

Through fields of alien wheat,

To the place of hallowed dreams,

Where all our tomorrows meet.


Rising to that yawning cleft;

Between that baked earth, right,

And bearded barley, ripe –

Beyond all that is left.


Demeter mourns for her lost youth,

Russet cloak unleavening

The burgeoning Lammas-scape

In her widowed wake.


Yet, if she lifted up her downcast eyes

They would glimpse a gladdening light

That could demystify those

Night-stung tears of dew.


Rekindle a faltering love

Which was once so bright;

Tinderbox heart sparked ablaze

By this Promethean view.


Look! His dazzling smile already melts

Her frosty gaze –

The heartening land smiles welcome

As the colour returns to her cheeks.


With a God’s eye view

We discerned the canvas

Upon which he painted –

Pigments selected from a divine palette,

Sable-soaked, laden with morning hue –

As elegantly across the vast vista

He swept it.


Drowsy textures arose –

Dormant tints, awoken by his touch.

As our orbs imperceptibly peeled

An earthairfirewater colour

Was unveiled.


Rich vermillions, sombre umbers,

Occult ochres, verdant viridians,

Were presented by this prismatic parade

As if such a spectrum had never before

Dared to emerge from the shade.


Blinded by an unearthly faith,

We now rubbed our eyes

At this dawning creation

With a renewed belief.


Breathtaken, we breathed it back:

Pulling the sky towards us

In lungfuls of light –

Then exhaling,

The clouds dispelled like dandelions.


An impromptu pantheon,

Recreating the world

In our own fractured image.

Raise an eyebrow to influence the air,

Lift a finger and the crops would soar,

Invert a thumb and harvests fail…


But who are we to judge,

When from afar, we appear mere


Yearning for a common thread?


Yet the lionheart’s golden mane

Is not ours to wantonly flay;

Braided bails of spiralling corn

The only evidence

Of a God that passed this way.


Now hush – for fields have ears

And silence is as golden as the sun.


From the dancing trees

Our forest kith could be heard;

Amongst the bustling stalks

The flower kin spread the word.


It was a choral dawn like no other –

The morning eavesdropped upon by Adam

When first he emerged from the



A myriad of voices chattered away,

But in the same tongue spoken.

Revealed! The lost language of the fey –

Our ears had awoken!


The gloaming star winked green:

It knew a secret – we did not.

The champion waited for

Was finally seen, borne in his sacred cot.


Lugh! He soars by bronzed chariot.

Lugh! He strums with a solar lyre.

Lugh! He sings with honey lyric.

Lugh! He sees through eyes of fire.


We toasted the rising king

With wide eyes and barley wine,

Our joy expressed in sundancing –

Jumping alive with ecstatic mime.


Lost in the landscape of Lughnasadh,

The moment telescoping,

Outside time.


It was ourselves looking at our elves,

Which the Outsiders insighted –

A frame within a frame.

The burning gallery ignited.


Rocketed by déjà vu (again)

A product of eternal combustion,

This glimpse of infinity’s spark?


For the answer to that endless question

We had to go where none return:

Down amongst the dead men,

Hoping in the dark.


Skull walls leered in silent mockery,

A sarcophagus whistled

A deadly tune;

Lulled, rolling into the barrow,

Returning to the tomb…


Way, way down there:

A rag, a bone, a hank of hair –

Would that be all that is left

To resurrect us?


O Lazarus, O Lazarus.


Ashes to – what then – Ashes?


Dust to – nothing more than – Dust?


As cold clay kissed awake,

Mannequins of the Fire Drake.


Charged in this earthen kiln,

Ossified, lacquered and brittle,

Until dropped, and shattered

At the marriage of the Quick and the Dead.

Each shard indicative

Of the punishment or pleasure

Stretching ahead..?



Not whilst friends remain

To keep one’s memory alive –

Though tempests torment us,

Storms in our cracked cup.

Join hands

and we will endure.


The dead talked

Amongst themselves;

Thick as thieves –

They kept their secrets,


We kept our lives.


For now we had descended

To the summit’s peak,

Casting our reflections

Upon the waters of the deep.


It was time to go,

To leave a votive offering behind.


The past’s shadow was exchanged

For something of worth to find.


The sacred place resanctified,

By rites of passage outworn,

We emerged remembered,

Reconciled, reborn.


Crawling blinking into the brightening world,

We learnt to see again, through fields of vision.


Back down to earth

We cloudwalkers gently floated.

The grease of our harvest supper

Still upon empty mouths –

Terra firmly devoted.


The Bacchanalia was over –

Boozy God of derangement

Rent asunder: his goodness shared,

Blood into wine, flesh into bread.


John Barleycorn is dead!

John Barleycorn is dead!


The parched soil drank him dry:

The Goddess takes back what once was hers.


The power returns to the Mother.

The power returns to the Mother.


As we turned to the crimson-smeared day,

Imbibing the drunken sun,

Wetstone-slicked sickle in hand,

                           Ready to make hay.




Kevan Manwaring 1994/2007