Imbolc in Literature – the Stirring of New Life, but Pregnant with Meaning

Blessed Imbolc!

The ancient Gaelic celebration of Imbolc, or its Christian equivalent Candlemas, is observed today (the date moves around, but it’s usually on the 1st or 2nd February), halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.  Imbolc heralds the start of Spring, and for (Irish) Christians it marks the feast day of St Brigid. Imbolc was probably a pagan fertility festival co-opted by early Christians; indeed St Brigid herself is in all likelihood a Christianisation of a pagan goddess.

Although Imbolc seems to have been more visible in the media in recent years, Candlemas, its Christian counterpart is now mostly one of those Christian festivals that have been largely forgotten in secular Britain, along with Lammas, Whitsun, Lady Day and Michaelmas. Peter Hitchens might blame Dickens for this, inflating Christmas as he did until it filled our minds as the definitive Christian feast day, but Imbolc, probably due to its Irish association with St Brigid and wider observance in Ireland and Scotland, lives on in its Pagan-Christian half-life still.

Candlemas is the Christian Holy day that also falls on the 2nd February, 40 days after Christmas; the day commemorates the ritual purification of Mary after the birth of Jesus. The name derives from the candles that the congregation brings to be blessed before Mass; there is often also a procession with lighted candles. Candlemas has largely been forgotten by the non-churchgoing public in the UK, and has been largely replaced in the US by the very secular Groundhog Day  which predicts the advent of spring not by a calculation between equinoxes or saints day, but by the actions of a no-doubt grumpy groundhog either seeing or not seeing a shadow on the ground. There is a faint echo here of the Christian lore that clear weather on Candlemas predicts a shorter winter.

So what of Imbolc/Candlemas in literature? When I realised that these were essentially the same tradition, I cast my mind back, as there seemed to be a negative connotation with Candlemas in my mind. Granted I was only able to recall a few instances from my reading, but all share a certain tension or risk, and all seem to hark back to a more primitive age and its fears and sorrows.

In Thomas Hardy’s Tess of The D’Urbervilles, the beautiful (and doomed) Tess ends up, after her seduction and short-lived marriage-come-desertion, at the dreary and wintry Flintcombe Ash farm. She has contracted to work there for the surly and mean-spirited Farmer Groby until Lady Day, but she presents herself at a hiring fair, held at Candlemas, in readiness for the next Lady Day.

Lady Day was one of the four quarter days in the calendar, each with its own Christian holiday, when farm rents, employment contracts for servants and agricultural workers, and other such formal matters were often settled upon in a time when clocks and calendars were scarce.

Tess’s time at Flintcombe Ash is a hard and unhappy time for her, marked by surly use by Farmer Groby, and her renewed pursuit by Alec D’urberville. It contrasts sharply with her earlier employment the previous summer at Talbothays, a lush cattle farm where she also met and was wooed by Angel Clare.  Although still a very young woman, the luxuriant springtime and summer of Tess’s sexuality seem shriveled to nothing but a bitter memory by the time she is at Flintcombe Ash, and the season matches this change in her life. The devilish Alec returns to stalk her at Candlemas and again in early spring, while Tess is working the heavy threshing machine. No more dreamy days milking cows in lush verdant meadows dripping with teaming life for Tess. The changes in her circumstances dating from that Candlemas and Lady Day lead directly to her end, although this is true throughout her tale. Tess’s symbolic capture on a pagan altar indicates that we should pay attention to the key dates in Tess’s calendar, and what they mean to her. The pregnant potential of Imbolc/Candlemas is no blessing to poor Tess.

Candlemas also features prominently as a date in the birth, life, and death of a less sympathetic character in literature – that half-man, half-outer being, Wilbur Whateley, the monstrous villain of HP Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror. The story opens with a quote from Charles Lamb’s “Witches and Other Night-Fears”, which is appropriate, as Wilbur’s tale is one of wizardry and terrors in the night.

Candlemas is the birthday of both Wilbur Whately and his unseen twin brother, although Lovecraft tells us that the locals of Dunwich “curiously observe (Candlemas) under another name.” Wilbur is a figure of potentially cosmic terror, and Lovecraft notes the significance of his Candlemas birth – “Born on Candlemas—nine months after May-Eve of 1912″.  May Eve is known is some parts of Europe, particularly Germany, as Walpurgisnacht, or Walpurgis Night, a feast day which in Germanic folklore is believed to be the night that witches and the dead are abroad, and all evil things revel.

In Bram Stoker’s story Dracula’s Guest,  the unnamed English protagonist (probably Dracula’s Jonathan Harker) is travelling to Transylvania on Walpurgisnacht and undergoes several supernatural ordeals during his journey.

Thus, a child conceived on Walpurgis Night, such as Wilbur Whately and his blasphemous twin, would be born on or about Imbolc/Candlemas. Hardly an auspicious start to life in shadow whispered Dunwich!

One last reference to Imbolc/Candlemas I can think of from pop culture is that of the 1993 film Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. Murray plays an arrogant TV weatherman who, during an assignment covering the annual Groundhog Day, finds himself hexed, caught in a time loop, and doomed to repeat the same day over and over until, after being driven to commit suicide several times, he re-examines his life and is able to break the spell via his love of a good woman. The theme of the (disordered) passage of time in the film ties in with the theme of spiritual and actual rebirth that marks Imbolc, although it is tinged with a warning that if we do not embrace the opportunities for new growth, we will be denied a rebirth of any kind.

I was initially surprised how dark the references are in literature to Imbolc/Candlemas, but upon reflection, there’s no disconnect. Birth and rebirth are perilous journeys, fraught with danger, and not everyone makes it out alive, or unscathed. We may be changed irrevocably when we are reborn, possibly not for the better.

Perhaps the Irish tradition of weaving a Brigid’s cross from rushes and hanging it on the kitchen wall to protect against evil and fire, a custom which continues in some Irish households to this day, harks back to a time when the heralding of new life and the coming spring were not just the idyllic respite from the darkness of winter that we envision today.

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St Brigid’s Cross made from rushes. Author: Culnacreann               (Own work), Creative Commons Attribution (Wikipedia)

Guess Who’s Back…News Roundup

It’s been a few months since I’ve posted, even though in the interim I’ve had a couple of flash fiction stories published; my non-writing life got in the way, and family comes first.

I hope you all had a great Christmas and New Year’s, constant reader; a gift I inadvertently gave myself for 2018 was some distance on my two novels-in-progress; going back over both drafts this week, I appreciate the chance to look at my work with fresh, critical eyes. I’ve got a couple of word games on my phone, and I often get stuck on a stage – closing the game and leaving it a day invariably helps me find that impossible word and progress a level! It’s the same thing with my writing.

And although I haven’t been actively working on my drafts, I’ve been mulling over some plot and thematic issues, and reading, reading, reading! A Christmas and New Year movie-marathon also threw up some good ideas, as did a couple of crazy Youtube videos! It’s all grist to this word miller.

If you get a chance please head on over to 101fiction.com and reflexfiction.com where you’ll always find great new flash fiction; I was pleased to make their Summer 2017 long list of 50, from 320+ entries, for the latter.

I wish you all a happy, productive and creative New Year!

June Roundup: flash fiction published and revisiting the draft of my first novel: it does get better!

Felixstowe beach
Felixstowe Beach

May and June have been busy, momentous even, and I’ve struggled to find time to write and update the blog. I did, however, snatch the time for a quick trip to the seaside; we are pretty much in the centre of the landmass of England, and the coast is a long drive in every direction, but we managed to get over to Felixstowe on the East coast during that blink-and-you-missed-it heat wave we had a few weekends ago.

I’ve also had a couple of pieces of flash fiction published recently; Uncle Clifford at Fifty Word Stories and Conditional at 101 Fiction. As usual, both are inspired by real life events, although “Conditional” has a nasty whiff of wish-fulfilment!  If you have the time, please grab a moment to visit these great flash fiction sites; I’m often inspired by the quality of the stories they feature.

I’ve also taken time, now a couple of months have gone by since its publication, to revisit The Battle of Watling Street, specifically to review how it reads to me, four or five months after I completed the last edits. I’m pleased with the result; the text is nice and tight, and I haven’t found any glaring historical anachronisms! I enjoy the characters and their voices, and I might be tempted to catch up with Dedo and Cata and follow their adventures after their escape from the destruction of Boudicca’s forces.

I’m currently working on the modern-day sequel to  Street, but emboldened, I revisited my first novel-in-progress, And The Buntings Flew which is around 50% through; I’ve parked it for now so I can finish my Sci-Fi novella, but it means the most to me, and I wanted to have a read through to refresh my memory ready for me picking it up again towards the autumn.

It was a revelation – the story is still great, the characters and descriptions still grip, but I was so long-winded in writing the action and “doing” scenes; just moving characters around in their world would take pages, and it made a really tense story with high stakes drag at times.

Anecdote time; when I was first asked to take minutes in a meeting, many years ago, I captured pretty much every word uttered, and turned in a whopping ten-pager instead of the usual one or two sides of notes and actions – the writing in my draft for Buntings, particularly where characters are acting, going about their business and driving the plot, has similar style faults. My writing inexperience shines through.

I shouldn’t have been surprised – the experience of completing my first novella really helped in tightening up dialogue, action scenes and just getting characters from A to B, and the whole process has come under some scrutiny from beta readers for Watling Street, and the results are there to be read. I’m writing more tightly, and coming to the point – my words have lost their flab and have muscle, exactly the result you expect from training and lots of practice. The good news is that I can sweep through the slow sections in “Buntings” and trim them considerably with relatively little pain; the total word count will take a hit though!

Have you had a similar experience when revisiting your earlier writing, maybe an unfinished draft you’ve picked up again recently?

#MysteryWeek on Goodreads – My Five Sentence Original Mystery

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Port of Belfast with Cave Hill in the distance

It’s nearly May, and as well as hopes for warmer (or at least consistent) weather, my thoughts have turned to murder mysteries and crime; May 1st – 7th is Mystery Week on Goodreads, and I’m taking part this year!

Goodreads have organised a raft of activities for mystery writers and readers between the 1st and 7th of May; use hashtag #MysteryWeek to search for new stories on social media, including the five sentence mystery feature;  below is my offering, which you can also find listed on my Goodreads writing page; I’ve also answered an Ask the Author question on Goodreads that specifically relates to #Mystery week; links to all of these below the story!

In my five (very long) sentence story, my mind took fancy with the revenge motif, but some of the incidents in this story are based on a real life tragedy and also figure in my upcoming novel And the Buntings Flew, which constant readers will know is set in 1970’s Troubles-torn Northern Ireland.

***

THE HAND OF KANE

Barbs of rain flayed the skin from Napoleon’s Nose and lashed down Cave Hill towards the steel-grey lough and the harbour ring road, where the forensic team had finished off and the peelers were ducking beneath the tape that surrounded the burnt-out Vauxhall Vectra:

“Here’s what we have so far, from the VRN and ID in the vehicle” – the young RUC officer’s eyes were pasted to his notebook, not wanting to see again the pathetic contents being zipped into the body bag; one glimpse of the dead man’s right hand was enough, sloughed of skin, the muscle roasted and shrunk to reveal bones, while the rest of his body was cherry red, untouched by fire and intact, apart from a crushing bruise over the right temple;

“James Kane, 54 years old, North Belfast, cashier at the petrol station convenience store up the street, going by the lanyard round his neck”; he waved his arm along the road that loped around this outcrop from the shore, this dreary hinterland of distribution centres and the outer harbour ferry terminal.

“Thon’s Jimmy Kane – your man did a twenty stretch for shooting those wee Quinn lads, Catholic brothers they were, in the 70s, yonder on the Jennymount estate,” his older companion and superior, Swanson, replied; “surprised he’s lasted this long outside – could be a Republican revenge hit – come on Corr, we’ve had another call, possible suicide down at the city port – still feel like a bite to eat?”

The port authority staff had taped a cordon on the dockside, where the body lay close to the ferry that was waiting to return across the North channel to Cairnryan:

“We didn’t see him here for a wee while down there, at the bottom of the rock wall”, explained a harassed port authority supervisor, wiping his forehead, sweaty despite the biting breeze scuttering over the water – the body lay, half in the grey water, snagged on the gabion walls that augmented the natural quayside – male, medium height, rail thin, age maybe mid-sixties, the trajectory was clear to all who saw his body; he’d leapt from the ferry, but not the one currently in dock; had they really not noticed him here for four hours, since the last ferry had docked – there was some connection between these two deaths, and when Corr called Swanson’s attention to the pair of well-worn leather gloves that lay on the ground just above the body, he knew there was more to this than the suicide of two auld fellas; he had a hunch that probed his hardened but not sclerotic sensibilities, and chilled him more than the wet salt wind that dove deep into the fissures of his craggy features.

Pathology was pending, but the reports would confirm what Swanson knew; Jimmy Kane was knocked out by a mighty blow to the head and left in his still-running car with a hose from the exhaust; he had suffered third-degree burns to his right hand, probably inflicted from the half-full canister of petrol by the car, but it was the body by the ferry that told a tale as old as mankind; 64-year-old Harry Doran, born Harold Kane, elder brother to the deceased in the car, and an exile from Norn Iron for forty years; the appointment card in his pocket for colorectal cancer treatment suggested he would soon be a permanent exile if he hadn’t taken his own way out; door to door in the neighbourhood of Jimmy’s home had convinced Swanson there was no need to pull in anyone else, Catholic or otherwise; Jimmy never moved from his birthplace, revelling in his notoriety, even taking a job close to the home of his victim’s long-suffering parents, but Harry left the province after his brother’s conviction, returning only now, when he had his own death sentence –

“But Sarge”, interrupted Corr, following this line of reasoning only so far, “I can see he might have wanted to off his brother, family disgrace and all that, although that doesn’t happen too often around here, but this hand and glove business; is it something to do with the flegs…” –

“You’re on the right road”, interrupted Swanson, “my theory is that Harry burned his brother’s hand to show it was a revenge killing, the Red Hand of Ulster and all that; but as to the gloves, take a gander at the items found on Doran’s body.”

He handed a printed sheet to Corr, who scanned the list, still none the wiser:

Appointment card for Oncology Department, Royal Marsden Hospital
Order of service card for funeral of Mrs. Roberta Doran, dated one week previously
Leather wallet, same brand as the gloves, containing cash and a one-way ferry ticket to Belfast
A pocket bible
Three news articles cut from the Belfast Telegraph; the 1974 retaliation murder of brothers Matthew and Mark Quinn, a later story about tension in the community after Jimmy Kane was employed close to his victim’s family, and a historical article on the myths surrounding the symbol of the Red Hand of Ulster; shakily underlined in red felt tip was the following passage – “Some myths tell of a time when Ulster was without a king so a boat race was held; the one whose hand first touched the shore of Ulster would win the crown – one contestant, seeing that he was losing the race, cut off his hand and threw it to shore, thus winning the race.”

Twitter #MysteryWeek

Goodreads Ask The Author Mystery Week Question – Margaret McGoverne

Link to the story on Goodreads

The Battle of Watling Street is Published!

I am a published author of a historical/science fiction novella!

Yesterday was D-Day. After feverish last minute formatting and some tiny revisions (how can I still find things to tweak after dozens of self-edits, software edits, beta readings and more edits?), I took the plunge and submitted my book to Kindle.

I’ve entered Amazon’s Storyteller 2017 competition, so I also had to make the book available in print, which added a whole additional learning curve and some drama – chez McGoverne was tense! In fact, the uploading process was pretty simple and well explained; preparation is key.

A couple of tweaks later (I forgot the keyword for the competition, I didn’t zip file the Kindle edition so an image was missing and I had to reupload both versions, which took ALL day), and both book formats were live on Amazon! A quick Author update later and I am an Amazon author – yay!!!

Margaret McGoverne Amazon UK Author Page

I am really pleased with the covers, especially the paperback version, which was easier to create than I thought, thanks to the proofing and formatting tool on Kindle DP. I’ve linked the images below back to the books on Amazon if you’re interested!

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It was such a rush to see the back cover of the paperback version, complete with barcode and ISBN (free from Amazon).

As you can see, the paperback version already has the free Amazon “Look inside” previewer; the Kindle version should be up and running within a week.

And look! Look how prettily it renders on a Kindle! Oh, the formatting that went into this, the sneaky Word/HTML reformatting that I had to manually adjust, the mucking about with paragraphs, styles, and headings!

capture

I am so thrilled to see all the hard work translated into a thing, a book, that looks professional, has a working Table of Contents, has an engaging cover (I think), and is all my own work!

I let my personal Facebook friends, family and colleagues know, and have tweeted a link to the book, and the response has been great; purchases have happened, in both formats! Now I need some reviews; my mind already turns to promoting this book, and I’m looking at services such as Bookbub and The Fussy Librarian, but both require at least 10 4 star Amazon reviews. I’m not sure if Bookbub accepts novellas, and they are notoriously choosy!

I’m also promoting with local news outlets, Twitter interest groups etc.

I haven’t registered for KDP Select yet so I’m not sure if I can do a free promotion; these are things I need to research ASAP!

It’s been a tiring, an emotional and ultimately a hugely rewarding journey, with lots of learning curves. The work isn’t over for The Battle of Watling Street; I want to make it visible to as many people as possible, but I also have to crack on with the sequel, and the other novel I’m working on; no laurel lounging allowed!

My last note on here is a request/plea: I’d like to guest blog on your blog! I’d be happy to blog about the book, the writing process, the subject matter or the process of publishing with Kindle DP. I’d also love to do interviews, and have already compiled some great questions I’d love to ask my fellow authors in return!

So if you would like to include a guest blog from me or interview me, please do get in touch, and thanks to everyone, to all my dear constant readers and commenters, for your support!

My Second Work-in-Progress: The Bondage of The Soil

Church, Icknield Trail, Bedfordshire
Church, Icknield Way, Bedfordshire

I love reading spooky tales at Christmas; M.R. James is a firm favourite, and I usually reread H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Festival” to celebrate the Yuletide season. The idea for a short horror story in the tradition of these greats came to me last December when I was deep into my ghostly reading season; I have a new route to get to the M1 on my commute to work, and the idea was born as I drove past an unfamiliar, isolated and very atmospheric church (pictured above).

Having put together an outline, I found enough historical/geological weirdness in the location in which the story is set, which happens to be near my current home town, to write a longer story; the current outline is for a forty thousand word or so novella. Prepare to be unsettled. I aim to write this up quickly as an exercise in increasing my word count productivity, as the story needs considerably less research than And The Buntings Flew, so I hope to have a first draft by the end of 2016.

“The Bondage of The Soil”

Forty-five-year-old divorcee Stella Travis might be having a nervous breakdown. Her daily prosaic cross-country drive to the nearest motorway junction has taken a very strange turn. Can her visionary experiences be related to the new bypass being excavated from ancient green belt land that lies sleeping alongside Britain’s oldest road?

Brooding and suspenseful, spanning the ages from before the Roman invasion of Britain, the Iceni rebellion led by Celtic Queen Boudicca, the story stretches from the prehistoric earth to beyond the stars.

Why a Novella?

I originally thought of the story as a Horror/Sci-Fi tale, but having looked into these genres, I’m currently leaning towards describing the story as Sci-Fi, with perhaps an element of Low Fantasy, which I recently learnt about; Low Fantasy is usually set in the real world or a fictional but rational world,  but with elements of the fantastical or at least the ambiguous to leave the reader asking; what (in term of the fantasy elements) is reality and what is psychological in origin?

My favourite reading subjects/genres include fiction and non-fiction relating to ancient Rome and ancient Britain; I also love Sci-Fi and horror, and I wanted to incorporate all of these elements into one story, but imbue it with a contemporary feel and a bigger story ultimately about modern people and the challenges they face; dealing with change at an ever-accelerating rate, and finding your place in the world.

I’m in the middle of writing my longer novel “And The Buntings Flew“, and although it’s great to have two projects to work on and alternate when one gets tough, I decided that two full-length novels was a stretch too far for me. In addition, I think that this is at heart a simple tale with a fantastic premise, and a novella is the right vehicle to tell a story that deals with one, maybe two main characters and a single event; the story has a central vision that deserves more than a short story telling, but probably isn’t suitable for a full-length novel treatment. My article about fiction lengths has  a section about The Novella if you’re interested in the standard definitions for fiction based on length.

Where Did The Title Come From?

I read a poem at the end of last year by Rabindranath Tagore, a Bengali poet who became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913. The poem is from 1928 and is titled “Fireflies”; it contains the following lines:

Emancipation from the bondage of the soil
is no freedom for the tree.

Tagore’s poem is structured like a series of Japanese haiku; he had translated many haiku into Bengali and “Fireflies” reads like a series of epigrams and haiku dealing with the forces of nature and time as distilled by a wise observer. You can read the unabridged poem here.

I’m about 25% through the write up, and the plot and characters are all fleshed out. Watch this space for updates and news on publication, and the inevitable heartache before I get to that stage! I’ve included a link below to the Pinterest board I’ve created to showcase themes and locations in the story.

Flash Fiction June 2016 – “Glaucus”

Bartholomeus Spranger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Glaucus and Scylla [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
One of my 100-word stories has been published today by John Xero in Issue 12 of 101fiction.com . The theme of this issue is “underwater”.

I love reading the other stories published at 101fiction; the quality is very high, so if you like reading bite size horror, Sci-Fi, fantasy and surreal tales, please check it out.

My story’s title is “Glaucus”and it concerns a lovelorn Greek deity and his unsuspecting crush.

It’s another piece of flash fiction inspired by my day job;  on occasion I have to descend into cable tunnels, deep underground in London, some of which lay under the River Thames and other waterways.

I enjoy being a tunnel rat, but it’s undoubtedly a little unsettling; the damp walls and the occasional squeak of unseen but nearby creatures all add to the atmosphere….

I hope you like the story.