Tag Archives: Seventeenth Century

Novel Progress

More than two years into its writing, and I’m making good headway with the penultimate draft of my novel. It would have been finished sooner, but I got sidetracked into writing, and publishing, half a dozen shorter pieces in the interim. I hope to have it finished and published before the year is out, but this should be seen as an aspiration, rather than as a definite plan, for I have a terrible habit of revising, and then revising the revisions. The first chapters have been reworked so many times that few of the words remain from the original, although the structure has altered little as I had the plot clearly mapped out from the outset. Despite this fact, the first five words that open the story remain unchanged. As to what they are, you’ll have to wait and see.

What is this book about? There is, as in most of what I have written thus far, a liberal dose of humour, much of it black, but as for its primary themes, they are rather different: superstition, greed, jealousy, slavery, piracy and religious fanaticism; nothing that wouldn’t have been familiar to an ordinary resident of a seventeenth-century Cornish fishing village, but much which would, perhaps, be a surprise to the reader today, for the slavery and piracy outlined in these pages was real enough, but is now largely forgotten. The case could even be made for saying that the form of slavery dealt with in this tale has been airbrushed out of history, because it jars with the simplistic, and simplified, ‘Black’ victim/ ‘White’ oppressor narrative that dominates historical and popular discourse today. The evil of slavery, in its many forms, has never been a simple matter of black and white, irrespective of what some may claim in support of manufactured racial ‘grievances’ and political agendas in the present.

If we are to take the dictum that it is the victors who write history, what does it tell us about the state of the world that we live in today, when the enslavement of somewhere in the region of 1 to 1.25 million Europeans by North Africans, between the sixteenth and early nineteenth centuries, goes unmentioned? Moreover, when considering that this form of raiding and slavery was justified, and legitimised, through reference to religious texts and traditions – specifically Islamic ones, citing the example of the ‘Prophet’ himself – does this form and practise of human bondage not have something to tell us about the worldview of a certain religious tradition? I have omitted from these figures the even greater number of men, women and children taken by Islamic slavers in the territories that now comprise Ukraine, Russia and the Balkans.

There is, quite rightly, much written about the evils of the Transatlantic slave trade, and this should not be forgotten, but at the same time, we should not let this skew our historical perspective so that we fall into the error of forgetting ‘inconvenient’ facts because their existence happens to upset some people. We should not let the old racist hierarchy of White = good/superior and Black = bad/inferior simply be replaced by an inverted racism where Whites are seen as innately bad and evil, and Blacks as essentially good and virtuous. Human stupidity, vice and cruelty are the monopoly of no portion of humanity, and neither are its virtues. The novel does not position itself as some crude anti-Islamic tirade, but as a critique of the stupidity of dogmatism and superstition in its many forms, both religious, and political: there are bigots of many stripes, and they can exist on the Left, just as readily as on the Right.

I’d better shut up now, and add that the book’s primary aim is to entertain. Those who delight in finger-wagging will be disappointed.

A devilish Devonshire Mystery

Superstition, credulity and deception in a seventeenth-century Devon village: the perfect ingredients for a tale of the occult, fleshed out from the bare bones of the facts of a certain case that have survived to this day. Involving, as it did, personages with names as evocative as the Worshipful Sir William Bastard, and the Reverend Tickle, the desire to work this up into a piece of fiction became irresistible, although the honour of fulfilling the role of protagonist was to fall to neither of these gentlemen, but rather to Robert Tooley, the local cunning man. In such a way, was a novella born: The Cleft Owl.

I stumbled upon this case and the person of Robert Tooley whilst re-reading Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic as background for my forthcoming novel Pendrummel: Gwen Gwinnel’s Return. The sheer oddity of the events outlined, and of the singular nature of the charms and rites employed by Tooley, was striking, as was the ease with which a number of the villagers willingly acquiesced with his instructions, at least for a time. This, moreover, all took place in an area of Devon – Dartmoor – which is steeped in folklore and legends of a sinister hue, with packs of demonic Wisht Hounds baying in frantic pursuit of their mortal quarry across the bog-strewn moors. The temptation to supplement this lore with another tale proved too great for me to resist.

Widecombe-in-the-Moor – the parish in which the story unfolds – possesses its own infernal folklore, being associated with a visitation of Old Nick himself during the ‘Great Storm’ of October 1638. On this particular Sunday, the parishioners were gathered in the church, which proved to afford them but ill shelter, for a bolt of lightning sent a pinnacle toppling through its roof, and was shortly followed by a sphere of dancing light – ball lightning – which bounced and scorched its path about the interior, leaving four dead and more than sixty injured. The public appetite for reports of such events meant that two pamphlets were published in London shortly afterwards, both invoking supernatural causes by way of explanation. Although not integral to this tale, for the case is said to have unfolded at some point during the latter part of the seventeenth century, it is something that I have allowed to influence the character of the protagonist.

There is also a distinct whiff of brimstone about the figure of Tooley. Little is known of him, other than that he was a cunning man and self-styled doctor, to whom the locals would turn for supernatural assistance in combating illness and other problems in their small community. He is believed to have lived on the periphery of the parish – in a building named Tooley’s Cott – although this identification cannot be ascertained with any certainty. However, what we can say is that the sequence of events that unfolded subsequent to him being called in to assist a family following the self-murder of a neighbour, led to him becoming an unpopular and reviled figure. His involvement, it seems, proved to generate more problems than it solved. More than that, I cannot divulge for fear of spoiling the story, but if your curiosity has been piqued, dear reader, I bid you peruse the pages of The Cleft Owl. It is free to read for Kindle Unlimited subscribers, but otherwise costs 99p, or the equivalent in your own currency should you reside outside of the UK. To preview or download, please click on the image below.

 

 

New Publication: The Cleft Owl

A cunning man, a sick man and a dead man, united by charm and rite. Seventeenth-century Devon was never stranger.  

‘The Cleft Owl’ – a tender discomfort and a gory crown. 

We find ourselves in Widecombe, Dartmoor, in the late autumn of 1683. Dr Robert Tooley – wise man, conjuror and confidence trickster – takes in hand the fortunes of a vulnerable family, as the harshest winter of the century is about to take the parish in its grip. Through his bizarre rites, paid for with their money, he has promised to deliver them from the reach of their tormenter, but the man in question happens to be dead. The gullible villagers, however, entrust their faith to his occult practices, at least for a time. 

Based upon a little-known and strange case, a number of the characters here portrayed – Tooley, the Reverend Tickle and the Worshipful Sir William Bastard – all lived and played a role in the life of this late seventeenth-century community, although it should be noted that the words written here are a loose work of fiction. Inspired by an incident related in Keith Thomas’s ‘Religion and the Decline of Magic.’ To read a sample, or to purchase for 99p, click the image above. 

 

 

 

 

Capturing Voices from the Past

One thorny challenge for the writer of historical fiction is how to capture and convey the language of a particular time and place in history, or indeed, whether to bother at all. To what extent should an author seek to reproduce past patterns and modes of speech, bearing in mind that they should be comprehensible and engaging for the modern reader? 

This has prompted much discussion over the years, particularly with respect to the language of Shakespearian English, for it is striking to any speaker of English today that many of his sonnets do not rhyme, and his comedy is often desperately short on laughs. Why should this be so? It would seem that this is largely down to shifts in the spoken form of the language, and the following discussion of how it has changed – featuring examples of lines from Shakespeare rendered in both Received Pronunciation and ‘Original Pronunciation’ – is both illuminating and entertaining. There is an earthy rusticity to Shakespeare’s language in its originally accented form that is missing from its contemporary delivery which greatly enhances its comprehensibility, restoring missing rhymes and puns. It’s well worth listening to: http://www.realmofhistory.com/2016/10/31/listen-shakespeare-sounded-original-pronunciation/

‘The Cleft Owl’ – Cover Preview

Whilst I have been busy working upon ‘The Rude Woman of Cerne’ over the past month, I have also been writing ‘The Cleft Owl’, which is a markedly different piece in terms of mood, style and setting; altogether much darker. It is a tale of the occult based upon fragmentary evidence relating to real events that took place in seventeenth-century Widecombe-in-the-Moor, weaving together both historical personages and fictional characters. Few know of the events upon which this story is based, events which readers will doubtless find both bizarre and disturbing.

So, without further ado, I present you with a preview of the cover for ‘The Cleft Owl’, a tale of mystery and occult deception, which opens in November 1683, and will be published in February 2017.