Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Wintry Tales

December 31, 1887

Tonight, in these last hours of the old year, I have been thinking of New Year's Eves at home in the Borders, when I was a child and my father still alive. I remember how the Hogmanay fires burned the old year out, how the midnight bells rang, and how we waited for a dark-haired man to step over our threshold, bearing gifts of coal and salt, black buns and shortbread.

I wonder what they do to welcome the New Year in that great house (as I imagine it) in Wiltshire. Are there bonfires on the downs, and bells pealing out?  Perhaps Tom Grenville-Smith is alone tonight, as I am, sitting beside the fire with a book on his knee while he dreams about Brazil. But no, most likely there will be a ball, and it will be waltz music that he hears; and he will dance with ladies in low-cut Paris gowns in a blaze of lamplight, under glittering chandeliers.

 These winter nights when I am abed with the candle blown out and I am drifting towards sleep, I find myself thinking how it would be to leave this cold grey city and live once again among woods and fields: not in a ploughman's cottage as I once did, but in a grand house with servants and many rooms, and one room entirely to myself, with shelves for my books and a desk upon which to write.  And sometimes as  sleep overtakes me, though I know it is daft to do so, I  think of  the one person with whom I would wish to share that house --  or any house, be it only a  ploughman's cottage after all. (From Wild Talent: a Novel of the Supernatural)
* * *

The moon came out, and flooded the broken snowscape with its chill white light. Never had Gerda imagined a scene so beautiful, or so forbidding. There was something dreamlike, hallucinatory, about this northward journey. Always before there had been lakes and rivers, hills and forests to help them chart their way. Now there were no more landmarks, and the thin shell of ice upon which they walked was like a vast unfinished puzzle, the pieces endlessly lifted and turned and shuffled by a giant hand.                   

Gerda had not thought it was possible to be so lonely. Though she was grateful for Ritva's steadfast presence, each of them, trudging silently through that frozen world, was locked in her own solitude. Is there anything more frightening, Gerda mused, than to be utterly alone with one's own thoughts? It was no wonder that arctic travellers panicked and went mad.

"Oh, look," said Gerda, awestruck, as the black sky filled with  swirling ribbons and darting, flickering shafts of rainbow colour. "Ritva, look, the northern lights!" 

"I see them, " said Ritva impatiently. She added, with sour irony, "Why are you whispering?  Who's going to hear you?" And Gerda realized that her voice was as hushed as if she were in church.

Somewhere in the near distance there was a thunderous crash; the ice shuddered and rocked beneath their feet. Ritva caught hold of Ba's collar as he reared in panic. In the shimmering light of the aurora they saw a huge crack opening up not twenty paces ahead.

An ice-block the size of a cottage thrust halfway out of the fissure, and then slipped back. There was a grinding, splintering sound, and with a jolt the ice tilted sharply beneath them. Suddenly everything seemed to be moving, shifting, eddying. It was as though some huge sea-creature was threshing wildly beneath the ice.

Gerda's heart gave a sick lurch as she watched a black, windbroken expanse of water widening before them. Ever since they had abandoned the Cecilie this was the thing she had dreaded most, the fear that had haunted her restless sleep.  They were adrift, at the mercy of wind and tide, on an ice-floe hardly bigger than the Princess's swansdown bed.   ( From The Snow Queen)

* * *

All at once the wind died, and the sky cleared, and they were climbing through a jewelled world, transfigured by the evening sun. Every cliff and crag glittered with icicles, topaz and emerald in the slanting light. Ice crunched and splintered beneath their feet. Sangay looked down and saw that the path was striped with shimmering bands of colour -- pale green, white, sapphire blue and ruby-red. They had come to a curtain of ice, suspended like a frozen cataract across the trail. Sangay put up his hands to shield his eyes from the glare of the reflected sun.

Then somehow, in a dazzle of light, they had passed through and beyond the ice-curtain, into a forest of spires and turrets and columns. The air was very cold, very still, and filled with an eerie ghost-green radiance. Sangay could hear only the crackle of the ice under his boots, and the faint whistling of his own lungs. His breath hung before him like pale green smoke.

Now, as Jatsang led him deeper and deeper into the heart of the glacier, the path widened, and there were glistening open spaces among the thrusting ice-spires. The cold green light brightened, was edged with  gold like the first flush of sunrise seeping into the sky.  And then they had passed beyond the frozen forest and its shrouding wall of ice, and had come to the edge of a summer garden, a green and flowering valley hidden away among the snow-bound peaks. (fom The Dance of the Snow Dragon)


Prayer flags dance in a white dawn.
The wind’s horses leave no track upon the snow.

The voice of the flute
is the sound of a white bird singing.

Night music: beating of white wings
Over frozen water.

Under the ice, moon-bubbles rise.
The fish are dreaming.

(From Tales from the Holograph Woods: Speculative Poems)

Friday, November 12, 2010

Banff Centre production of The Snow Queen comes to Vancouver

“Mix snow, ice, enchanted mirrors, and reindeer, add a string quartet and narrator, and the stage is set for a magical retelling of a classic Hans Christian Andersen tale." In 2007 Canadian composer Patrick Cardy’s adapted score of  The Snow Queen for string quartet and narrator achieved the grand vision of the late composer in a spectacular new production created at The Banff Centre.

"The Snow Queen tells a story of friendship through adversity and of a brave journey guided by courage and love. Working with the Centre’s Music and Sound, Theatre Arts, and Creative Electronic Environment departments, Canadian actor Alon Nashman and the Toronto-based Tokai String Quartet participated in a two-week residency at the Centre, enabling The Snow Queen to be realized for the first time as a full theatrical production incorporating image projection, lighting design, and audio support.”

This multi-media family production of the The Snow Queen comes to Vancouver's  Round House Community Arts and Recreation Centre, February 24-26  2011 . It  features the Cecilia Quartet, winners of the 2010 Banff International String Quartet Competition. For more information see the Music in the Morning website.

For more on Andersen's The Snow Queen, and my YA novel based on the story, see my June 13, 2007 posting on this blog: Wild women, robber-maids and travelling ladies )

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


From the Author’s Note to Wild Talent: A Novel of the Supernatural: On the farms of the Scottish Borders in the 19th century, field workers were mostly women and young girls. Hired or “bonded” at hiring fairs along with a male relative, they were known as bondagers, and they did every kind of heavy outdoor work except for ploughing.

I first encountered a reference to bondagers in a coffee table  book on English cottages: “In Northumberland there was a large class of female farm workers, known as bondagers, who were the servants of the hind, who in turn was the farmer’s servant. The bondagers were always unmarried,, aged between ten and thirty, and they would live in. On the larger farms there might be six or eight hinds, each with two or three bondagers to help him. They would work in gangs, chiefly out of doors, but if there was little to do on the land, bondagers were not bound, like other women to take on trivial household tasks.” (English Cottages, by Tony Evans and Candida Lycett Green, Penguin Books, 1982, p.16)

Intrigued, I wondered if the lives of these women workers had ever been documented. With a little research  I discovered that the term “bondager” had been in use right up until the beginning of the Second World War for full-time women field workers in the south-east of Scotland. I also learned that in 1997-98  the Scottish Working People’s History Trust had recorded the personal recollections of eight Scottish bondagers , who were then in their eighties and nineties These oral histories, transcribed in the women’s own words, were edited by Ian MacDougall and published in 2000  by Tuckwell Press as Bondagers: Eight Scots Women Farm Workers.

The book begins with an interview with Mary King, born 1905 in Berwickshire.

“Well, ah can remember the first day I went out ah felt a bloomin’ fool because ah wis dressed we’ this big straw hat and the drugget skirt and the brat, because ah wis supposed to be a bondager. There wis an older woman, ee see, and ah wis dressed the same as her. And ah remember her takin’ me tae the granary, up the stair, and writin’ ma name and ma age an ma weight. And ah was 7 stone 12. And ah wis only thirteen years auld. And that’s what ah was.”

Scottish playwright Sue Glover brought the lives of the bondagers to the stage in her 1991 play Bondagers: a play in two acts for six women.

And in my novel Wild Talent, Jeannie Guthrie writes in her journal:

"Today I was up at 5:30, with cold mist curling over the fields, to be at the stables by first light. The steward set me to work sorting tatties for the spring planting: six in the morning till six at night stooped over the pit in a grey drizzle, up to my boot-tops in mud, my hands half-frozen in my gloves. And on this day -- though it has passed as drearily as the ones before and the ones to follow -- I am sixteen years old.

. . . That raw February morning when I went with my Uncle James to the hiring fair, I guessed well enough what my life was to become. I was not yet fourteen, shivering with cold and nerves in my thin jacket, while the farmers came by to ask my uncle "Are ye to hire? And do you have a woman or girl with you?" Other women were laughing and chattering, in a holiday mood, for they'd not have a free day again before New Year's. And there was I, near dying of shame while the farmers looked me up and down, and my uncle swearing I was a braw strong girl, with back and arms meant for stooking sheaves and cleaning byres. No Paris gowns it was to be, for Jeannie Guthrie, but an apron and drugget skirt. No feathered chapeau, but a bondager's kerchief and wide straw hat ruched with red and black; no stockings of silk, but rough tweed leggings and tackety lace-up boots.

More on bondagers

Thursday, September 23, 2010

By the Pond at Liu Pei T'ing *

Slow rain falls on hollow stone;
your lute lies silent on the bench.
Wind stirs the open pages
of your book.
The wine is gone.
My cup floats on the green curve of the canal.
Before it finishes its small journey
I must write this poem.

* The Pavilion of Floating Cups

From Tales From the Holograph Woods:
Speculative poems


Saturday, August 28, 2010

Wild Talent book review from The Virtual Bookmark

The Spring 2010 issue of the British Columbia Teacher Librarian's Association's "Virtual Bookmark" blogsite recommends Wild Talent: a Novel of the Supernatural for students in grades ten to twelve. "Wild Talent describes the interesting and often eerie psychical scene of the Victorian era.... Jeannie (Guthrie) is an interesting character who grows in knowledge and sophistication during the book. Many of the other characters are unique and fascinating."  Read the full review at The Virtual Bookmark.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Poetic Justice

I'll be guest reader this coming Sunday, August 22nd, at the Poetic Justice open mic session at Renaissance Books in New Westminster. The Poetic Justice readings happen every Sunday afternoon from 4 to 6 p.m. (except holiday weekends) at 43-6th Street, just up from  Columbia Street and minutes from the Columbia Skytrain station. Information: 604-525-4566.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Hidden Stonehenge Landscape

 Stonehenge Hidden Landscape, an archaeological project supported by the National Trust and English Heritage, has  used radar technology to reveal what appears to be a wooden version of Stonehenge, dating back to the same period, and less than a kilometer from the Stonehenge site.  The project leader, Vince Gaffney, a professor of archaeology at the University of Birmingham, says “This finding is remarkable.  It will completely change they way we think about the landscape around Stonehenge.” He added, “We have a massive virtual landscape (to explore). This is probably the first major ceremonial monument that has been found in the past 50 years or more.” (On an ironic note, the British government had just cancelled ten million pounds of funding for landscape improvements around Stonehenge.)

Over the centuries a host of  theories have attempted to explain Stonehenge.  Was it a celestial observatory, a pagan cathedral, a focal point of geomantic power, a place of ritual sacrifice? My historical fantasy The Sarsen Witch, grew out of my own fascination with Stonehenge and the other megalithic British monuments. First published in 1989, it was reissued by Juno books in 2008. You can read a review by Kelly Lasiter (along with some reviews of my other historical fantasies) at Fantasy Literature .

Friday, June 4, 2010

Poets in the slipstream

Bruce Sterling coined the term “slipstream” back in  1989, when he wrote in SF Eye, “…this is the kind of writing that simply makes you feel very strange…” Wikipedia goes on to say that “the common unifying factor of these pieces of literature is some degree of the surreal, the not-entirely-real, or the markedly unreal”.  Defying categorization,  slipstream writing may contain elements of fantasy, horror or science fiction, but it takes a mainstream approach to its material. It deals with universal concerns and universal images, paying close  attention to craft and technique as well as to theme.  Slipstream literature draws its inspiration from many sources: scientific concepts, speculation about the future, folk and fairy tales, the supernatural, dreams and visions. Its history extends from Beowulf, the Epic of Gilgamesh and Homer’s Odyssey, through Coleridge and Poe, to twentieth century Canadian writers like Gwendolyn MacEwen and Christopher Dewdney.

Media bufferDiscover more about slipstream poetry:

The Magazine of Speculative Poetry, PO Box 564, Beloit WI 53512. Founded in 1984, The Magazine of Speculative Poetry has been publishing the best speculative, science fiction, fantasy and horror poetry by Michael Bishop, Brian Aldiss, Jane Yolen, Robert Frazier, Bruce Boston and many others. A subscription of four issues is $19. A sample issue is $5.00.

Science Fiction Poetry Association   (publishes a newsletter Star*Line)

Contemporary Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Poetry: A Resource Guide and Biographical Directory   Scott E. Green

(Anthology) The Stars As Seen from this Particular Angle of Night, edited by Sandra Kasturi.

 Recent collections by Canadian poets

The Animal Bridegroom by Sandra Kasturi

Quintet: themes and variations, by Clélie Rich, Jean Mallinson et al

Tales From the Holograph Woods by Eileen Kernaghan

Thursday, May 27, 2010

On the pleasures of antiquity

I should like to rise and go
Where the golden apples grow -
Where below another sky
Parrot islands anchored lie…
…Where among the deserts sands
Some deserted city stands…

R.L. Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses was the first book I ever owned, and it inspired a life-long fascination with exotic, far-off places. My tattered copy has survived to this day, along with A. Merritt's The Ship of Ishtar and L.Sprague de Camp's Lost Continents. Long vanished are the hand-me-down copies of Weird Tales. In those faded 1930's pulps, Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard wrote about worlds where (to quote Sprague de Camp) "gleaming cities raise their shining spires against the stars; sorcerers cast sinister spells from subterranean lairs; baleful spirits stalk crumbled ruins; primeval monsters crash through jungle thickets; and the fate of kingdoms is balanced on the bloody blades of broadswords…" Worlds of mystery, lost in the deepest reaches of antiquity.

The fall of the Indus valley civilization is one of the great unanswered questions of archaeology. Were the cities of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa destroyed by climactic change? A shift in the course of the Indus River? Invasion? Over-grazing? As far as I can tell, few writers of fiction have explored the subject. Here was a world lost in antiquity, and an unsolved mystery. I had the subject for a novel – and the motivation for a great deal of research.

Alternate histories ask "What if?" Those of us whose fantasies play out in real historic time like to explore the "how" and the "why" - always keeping in mind that if you travel far enough back in antiquity, you may find sorcerers, baleful spirits, magical kingdoms and spells that actually work.

Winter on the Plain of Ghosts: a Novel of Mohenjo-daro was published in 2004 by Flying Monkey Press, and is available from Amazon.com and Amazon.ca.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

All the world loves a fair....

 Fired with enthusiasm in the aftermath of the 2010 Olympics, some Vancouver movers and shakers have hinted at the possibility of hosting other and even bigger international events.  Why not World Cup Soccer, or the Summer Olympics? Why not a Vancouver World’s  Fair?

Local organizers would be challenged to come up with a World’s Fair that could match -- for ambition, imagination and sheer extravagance -- the famous Expositions of the 19th century.

The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Continents (or The Crystal Exhibition), spearheaded by Queen Victoria’s husband Albert, was held in London’s Hyde Park in 1851. Charles Darwin visited, as did Charlotte Brontё , Lewis Carroll, George Eliot, and other luminaries of the time. The exhibition was housed in the Crystal Palace, a vast building of iron and glass hailed as an architectural and engineering marvel. The Koh-i-noor diamond was exhibited, and the first public restrooms, designed by George Jennings, were made available to the public for a penny. Six million people attended the exhibition, and the resulting surplus continues to fund research grants and scholarships to the present day.

There were, of course, naysayers. Some conservative thinkers suggested that this vast horde of visitors might erupt into a revolutionary mob; while Karl Marx and his fellow radicals decried its emphasis on capitalist commodities.

The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 celebrated the four hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World. More than two hundred classically designed white stucco buildings were erected on the six hundred acre site. This brilliantly illuminated “White City” inspired L. Frank Baum’s Emerald City of the Oz books, as well as Walt Disney’s theme parks (although some architecture critics thought the buildings looked like "decorated sheds".

Not everything went well. Many of the buildings still remained unfinished at opening time, and though more than 26 million people attended, the Chicago fair teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. Worse still, a pall was cast over the closing days of the exposition when the popular mayor of Chicago was assassinated.

The Exposition Universelle, held in Paris over the summer and autumn of 1889, marked the hundredth anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. Its centerpiece was the newly completed Eiffel Tower, which served as the grand entrance to the fair (and caused outrage among the artists of Paris. who called it "the junkman's Notre Dame".) Other main attractions were the Galerie des Machines, which used hinged arches to span what was at that time the world’s longest interior space; and the Colonial Exhibition, “which for the first time brings vividly to the appreciation of the Frenchmen that they are masters of lands beyond the sea....”
(Engineering, May 3, 1889) 

In my novel Wild Talent, Jeannie Guthrie and her friend Alexandra David spend a day at  the Exposition Universelle – and their reactions, as recorded in Jeannie’s Paris journal, are mixed.

(From Chapter Thirty-Two, Wild Talent: a Novel of the Supernatural)

July 20

I am not surprised that Madame Blavatsky so dislikes M. Eiffel’s tower. That metal colossus looming over the city is startling to see and impossible to ignore. Alexandra tells me that some of Paris’s most famous writers and artists protested its construction with an angry petition to the city government, but to no avail. However Alexandra, who because of her Oriental studies takes a longer view, says “After all, it is only made of iron. In time it will simply rust away, and fall to bits like Ozymandias.”

In any event, it serves as a grand entrance to the Universal Exposition, and passing beneath is like entering the gates of fairyland. The exposition spread out along the Champ de Mars and well beyond, commemorates the hundredth anniversary of the storming of the Bastille and the beginning of the French Revolution.  (I hoped there would be no guillotines on display – to my relief there are not – though we have heard there was a proposal, wisely rejected, to build one thirty metres high.)
There is an endless and bewildering number of exhibits – more than 61,000, according to the official guide – “a gigantic encyclopaedia, in which nothing is forgotten.” In the History of Habitation we saw a prehistoric house (rather like a tall, lumpy  anthill), a Lapland and a Russian house, and homes of the ancient Egyptians and Phoenicians. We visited a Polynesian village, a Chinese pavilion, an Angkor Pagoda, a Portico of Ceramics, a display of antique Persian carpets. We rode on the trottoir roulant, the moving pavement, drank black coffee and ate pastries in a  Moorish café, watched the Argentinean tango dancers, heard music played on gamelins by Javanese musicians, and opera played on Mr. Edison’s phonograph machine. In a week, or a month, one could not hope to see and hear everything.  We agreed to leave the galleries of Industry and Machinery and the Palace of Beaux Arts for another day; nor did we try to see Buffalo
Bill and Annie Oakley in their “Wild West Show”, for the crowds were far too thick.

Though it is advertised as one of the main attractions of the fair, what we enjoyed least was the village nègre, where four hundred native people from the African colonies are kept on display. “A zoo for human beings,” said Alexandra in disgust. “Quelle horreur! C’est révoltant!” – and we quickly moved on.

By then my feet were starting to ache and my head buzzed. I swear that visiting an exposition is more work than thinning a whole field of turnips! But Alexandra, when she is in a mood to explore, has boundless energy.

. . . “Let us stay till after dark,” said Alexandra, “and see the lights come on.” And so we had dinner in an outdoor restaurant, where we ordered cheese soufflés and a bottle of white wine, and were serenaded by a string quartet.

While we dined the summer twilight had deepened, and now all at once thousands of twinkling, glimmering electric lamps lit up the bridges and gardens and pavilions and the tower itself, transforming the exposition grounds into a festival of light.

It was nearly midnight, and both of us a little tipsy from the wine and baba à rhum, when at last we went in search of a cab to take us home.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Poetry at Renaissance Books

Eileen Kernaghan is guest poet at Renaissance Books' March Open Stage poetry night, reading from her recent collection Tales from the Holograph Woods: Speculative Poems. Also reading will be fellow BWS members Mary Choo , Julie Downsbrough and  Franci Louann.  Renaissance Books is located at #43- 6th St. at Carnarvon in New Westminster That's on Thursday, March 18, 7:30 p.m. Free admission; refreshments; book  signing; everyone welcome. Info: 604-525-4566.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

New anthology celebrates the Aurora Awards' thirty year history

Montreal's Nanopress is celebrating thirty years of  award-winning Canadian speculative writing with a new anthology, The Aurora Awards-- Thirty Years of Canadian Science Fiction.  Edited by Val Grimm, Marie-Astrid Walling and René Walling, with an introduction by Jean-Louis Trudel, the anthology will be released in May at Keycon, this year's Canadian National Science Fiction Convention. Along with stories by Daniel Sernine, Robert J. Sawyer, Julie Czerneda, Élisabeth Vonarburg, Candas Jane Dorsey, Yves Meynard, David Nickle, Karl Schroeder, Edo Van Belkom, Hayden Trenholm, Douglas Smith, and Laurent McAllister, it includes my near-future story "Carpe Diem" (which, because it was set at the end of the last millennium, has now become a near-past story.)  "Carpe Diem" was first published in the Canadian SF magazine On Spec in 1989, and won a Casper Award (now called the Aurora) in 1990. Its chilling prediction about the nature of  21st century health care has not yet --quite- come true.

Here are the links to the Nanopress announcement and the official Aurora Awards site.