“Inspirations and Influences” is a series of articles in which we invite authors to write guest posts talking about their…well, Inspirations and Influences. The cool thing is that the writers are given free reign so they can go wild and write about anything they want. It can be about their new book, series or about their career as a whole.
Today’s guest is Fantasy Author M D Lachlan – the pen name for the author and journalist Mark Barrowcliffe. His first Fantasy novel, Wolfsangel, a tale that combines Norse Mythology, Vikings and the myth of the werewolf, is being published by Gollancz this month. To celebrate its release, we invited the author to talk about the ideas behind the book.
Please give it up for M D Lachlan!
It’s a bit strange to talk of inspiration just because I’m not entirely clear how it works for me. I’m sure there are some people in the arts (Noel Gallagher, for instance) who see or hear something they like and think ‘I’d like to do something just like that’ and do. That’s actually an under-rated talent and one that can produce some great work. It’s also a good thing to do for people who are starting off. The poet Philip Larkin wrote his first works with a book of WB Yeats open on the table in front of him. It taught him the fundamentals of poetry, which enabled him to go on and find his own voice.
I don’t work like that, not from any high-minded principle but just because I don’t think I could do it very well. Some people can take a top thriller, virtually copy it, and produce a convincing top thriller. They then buy their house in the Bahamas and continue writing from there. I’m not so lucky. For some reason I just can’t do that and I know I can’t because I’ve tried.
So I’m pretty much stuck with originality, whether I like it or not. That sounds like a statement full of lightly veneered hubris but I genuinely think that originality is an unhealthy aim in any art form. I’m pleased that I’ve done something people consider original but my aim was to produce a bog standard fantasy story. My failure to do so was, luckily, a failure people seem to like.
Originality seems to have replaced beauty, truth or just entertainment as the yardstick by which the arts are judged. You can see why. It’s easier to say if something’s new, rather than if it’s any good. This, I fear, has been the curse of conceptual art. I don’t say there’s no good conceptual art, just that there’s an awful lot of bad stuff that people hesitate to condemn because it appears to be original.
I think we should be suspicious of originality. The reason something may not have been done before might be because it’s inherently rubbish. If something’s never been seen in human history, the likelihood is it’s been considered and dismissed at some point in the past and for good reason. However, as a writer, sometimes you do come up with something that you consider new and worth showing to other people. This was the case for me with Wolfsangel – a book that surprised me when I wrote it because things buried deep in my mind seemed to come bubbling to the surface, seize the fantasy novel I thought I was writing by the throat and drag it down, like Grendel, into the mire.
Wolfsangel is a historical fantasy, set in the Viking period and containing various supernatural elements – witches, werewolves and Norse gods. Just a warning, there are some mild spoilers, to do with the theme of the book below. I don’t give away plot but if you want to read Wolfsangel totally unsullied by explanation then you might want to look away now.
I don’t think I was inspired by any one thing to write this book. It’s more that certain things I’ve read and watched on TV have created a sort of mental microclimate into which I step every time I sit down write the book. If you think that’s a pretentious statement, try the next one. If the book is a landscape, these are the things that rained on it, blew on it and scraped across it to form it. I know that seems a pompous description but it seems about right.
Inspiration comes from the fact that I love dark fantasy. By this I don’t mean fantasy with dark characters – evil or psychopathic characters don’t really interest me as a writer – but something where the protagonists seem to be up against strange and unknowable forces. When I say I don’t want to write about evil characters – I like bad people in my books but I like you to know why they’re bad. One person’s evil is another’s unsentimental self interest.
TV obviously had an enormous effect on people of my generation and no more so than Children of the Stones – a tea time series in the 1970s. I could tell you all about it but it’s better to just listen to the theme tune (not the HTV bit, which comes first, clearly) Kids today would need counselling if you stuck this on a TV programme. It’s about ancient supernatural forces impacting on modern life – not too dissimilar from the theme of Wolfsangel. It also contains the idea of ancient stories playing out in the modern day.A book with a similar theme is Alan Garner’s Owl Service – set in Wales with a different mythology, that of the Welsh Mabinogion. I have to say, I enjoyed the idea of this book – ancient stories playing themselves out through modern people – more than the book itself when I was a kid. I’d loved his Weirdstone of Brisingamen with a passion and The Owl Service seemed a bit subtle and dated for my tastes back then.
The film The Wicker Man has a related feel. Please, in the name of sanity, don’t confuse this slice of 1970s genius with the Nick Cage remake, for which crime I think he should be set upon by pagans and sacrificed to the darkest god available within a four hour car journey. I said at the time it had all the charm of watching a dear old friend beaten to death. The 1973 Wicker Man has a great look to it and a superb plot – it involves a staid police inspector going to investigate the disappearance of a child on a remote Scottish island. Christopher Lee, pictured, takes a great part as the lord of the island.
Without wishing to spoil the plot I will say that it’s full of surprises – one of which I have just realised is very near to a surprise that comes up in Wolfsangel. Perhaps these influences have a more direct effect than I’d thought.
Very often when I’m writing a book I’ll have a tune that comes insistently into my head. For Wolfsangel it was Psychic TV’s Thee Full Pack. I can only really find it on Spotify so I can’t post a link. It’s a semi-pretentious, very atmospheric song which could really be about Odin, the chief god of Wolfsangel. ‘He is the father of fear…ripping the line of the time.’ It also includes the sound of a dog attack, treated through some sort of synthesiser, which is very werewolf-like. I’d recommend giving a listen because it’s very interesting and doesn’t give a hoot for being commercial. The one in my head with the book I’m writing at the moment is this, which is clearly a work of sublime genius by the greatest female artist ever to draw breath – The Hounds of Love by Kate Bush.
This is what I mean by not striving for originality. I have the strong sense that she was just writing songs. They happen to be totally original and mad as a sack of badgers but that wasn’t her aim – she just wanted to write something good. I could be wrong about that, of course, but I don’t think I am.
Some things you don’t even have to see or read for them to have an effect on you. I have no memory of ever seeing the western A Man Called Horse but it seems certain that it informed my view of Sioux magic as a quest for magical insight brought on by pain rituals. I tried to check to see if this was based on actual practices but drew a blank so this must have been my source for it.
However, other rituals that certainly stuck in my head were the pain rituals and human sacrifice of the Mayans, Incas and Aztecs – with practices such as body piercing or drawing a rope of thorns through a slit in the tongue.
I had a view that the important magical aspect of the human sacrifice was the terrible and horrific effect it had on the priests. This led me to the idea that a magical reality could be accessed by shocking the conventional mind into numbness. That’s not my real view but it was an interesting one to follow for the purposes of the book.
Of course, there is no Mayan or American Indian culture in Wolfsangel. The specific inspiration for that came from The Edda – the collection of Icelandic texts that give us our picture of Norse mythology. Edda means grandmother in old Norse – indicating that the stories were old at the time they were written down.
I was particularly fascinated by the figure of The Fenris Wolf, here pictured fighting Odin, I think, though the horse seems to only have four legs and Odin’s has eight:
Here is the wolf again in a wonderful picture by the Swedish painter John Bauer. It’s taking the hand of the God Tyr in his mouth as an insurance against the gods tricking him into allowing itself to be tied with unbreakable bonds. This is among my favourite sort of fantasy art.
Unfortunately it’s a bit staid for modern publishers to put on the front of books! The story of the Fenris Wolf is rather long for this blog but interested readers can find in on Wikipedia here.There is a chilling prophetic verse concerning the death of the gods at their final day which I carried in my head throughout the writing of Wolfsangel.
‘The fetters shall burst and the wolf run free
Much do I know and more can see.’
This is a mean wolf, he eats gods.
I was also fascinated by the self sacrifice of Odin (the chief Norse god, sort of), losing his eye and hanging on a tree for nine nights to gain magical knowledge. Here is an image I like from eighteenth century Iceland of the one eyed god riding his eight legged horse Slepnir. I’ve always preferred this sort of stuff to conventional fantasy art, from Roger Dean to men in hoods.
This is a key verse from the Edda, spoken by Odin.
‘I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin
myself to myself
on that tree of which no man knows
from where its roots run
No bread did they give me nor drink from a horn,
downwards I peered;
I took up the runes, screaming I took them,
then I fell back from there.’
This is a superb piece of writing that contains many of the ideas present in Wolfsangel – self sacrifice, the hanged god, and – of course – the runes, magical symbols.
The runes were a big influence on my writing an I think my interest in them stems directly from Tolkien and the mysterious writing Gandalf (this name appears in The Edda, meaning ‘magic elf’ in old Norse) carves on Bilbo’s door.
The one area where I do concede I tried to be original is where I sent my protagonists. I’d first decided to send them with the Viking fleets to Celtic Ireland but I thought the Celtic tradition had been well done by others. So I sent them north into the Sami lands, for which I had to do a lot of research. I shan’t say much about it, other than here is a Sami rune drum.
Another influence on my work is that I played Dungeons and Dragons to the point of Vitamin D deficiency when I was a kid. I loved it and would have to say that it must influence my writing. I’m not sure how, exactly, other than meaning I spent a youth with a head full of elves. However, I found its idea of magic too different to my own concept of magic.
The biggest influence on the feel of the magic in Wolfsangel comes from my early reading of books on the history of witchcraft. I used take these books to bed with me and scare myself stupid reading stories of witches vomiting pins or the excesses of the witchfinders. I think it’s the look of the illustrations I liked. Everyone has their own preferred sort of fantasy art and I think mine is woodcuts. It’s the strangeness of them that I like so much. This is the sort of book I used to read, or rather secondary texts that would contain quotes and pictures from this sort of thing.
The other magical practice – at least we assume it was a magical practice – that fascinated me as a kid was connected to the discovery of bog bodies.
These are presumed ritual sacrifices that have been preserved in peat bogs. Again, it’s the alien and strange nature of these images that appealed to me. Mire magic – you can’t really say bog in a modern novel without eliciting smirks – is a big part of Wolfsangel.
So all these things and more influenced me while I was writing Wolfsangel, or at least these were the things that I think helped form the mental climate in which the book was produced.
Thank you, Mark! And now for the giveaway:
The Viking King Authun leads his men on a raid against an Anglo-Saxon village. Men and women are killed indiscriminately but Authun demands that no child be touched. He is acting on prophecy. A prophecy that tells him that a child of the Gods will be found among the Saxons. If Authun takes the child and raises him as an heir, the child will lead his people to glory.
But Authun discovers not one child, but twin baby boys. Ensuring that his faithful warriors, witness to what has happened, die during the raid Athun takes the children and their mother back to Norway and the witches who live on the perilous mountain known as the Troll Wall. He places his destiny in their hands.
And so begins WOLFSANGEL, the first of a stunning multi-volume fantasy epic that will take a werewolf from his beginnings as the heir to a brutal Viking king, down through the ages. It is a journey that will see him hunt for his lost love through centuries and lives, and see the endless battle between the wolf, Odin and Loki – the eternal trickster – spill over into countless bloody conflicts from our history. This is the myth of the werewolf as it has never been told before and marks the beginning of an extraordinary new fantasy series from Gollancz.
We are giving away ONE copy of Wolfsangel to a lucky reader! Entry is simple – just leave a comment here telling us what your favorite werewolf book/movie is. The contest is open to ALL, and will run until Saturday, May 22 at 11:59 PM (PST). Only ONE comment per person, please! Multiple comments WILL be disqualified. Good luck!