THROUGH WYLMERE WOODS — genesis, and an excerpt.

Still two weeks to enter my giveaway contest – do a stunt, win Mars Evacuees six months early! I was pleased by this early entry:

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It’s now only a few days until World Fantasycon. I’ll be discussing Historical Fantasy on Thursday at 3pm in the Oxford Suite with Aidan Harte, Helen Marshall, Mark Charan Newton, Tim Powers, and Kari Sperring. I’ll be signing advance copies of The End of the Road, from Solaris, in which I have a story called Through Wylmere Woods, from 11-noon in “Signing Alley” on Sunday.  And, as mentioned before, there will be A BILLION, (okay, over a hundred) proof copies of Mars Evacuees JUST KNOCKING AROUND FOR FREE.

But right now I want to talk a little about Through Wylmere Woods.

 

Not for the first time, I wrote a novelette when I meant only to write a short story. “Short” is something I tend to fail at a lot. (cf my first novel – 200,000 words – and virtually all my blog posts).

Through Wylmere Woods can be read on its own. It can, I promise, it’ll be fine! But it is a Levanter-Sleet story, and to explain what that means I have to tell you about another story, MailerDaemon. MailerDaemon is in last year’s anthology Magic  (also from Solaris). In that story, Grace, a young woman plagued by nightmares on top of depression and unemployment, is chatting online to a friend she has never seen in real life – Seven_Magpies, whose real name we later learn is Morgane. To help with Grace’s nightmares, Morgane, who considers herself a witch,  offers to send a demon called Mr Levanter-Sleet. Grace doesn’t believe in witchcraft or demons, but she doesn’t like to be rude, so she accepts. That night, she doesn’t have nightmares.  But she soon finds she’s acquired a different set of problems.

(That scene’s pretty much the most autobiographical thing I’ve ever written, incidentally. I do hope the person who inspired it doesn’t mind. Everything that follows, and everything we later learn about Morgane, is entirely fictional.)

 

You see that big, smoky, be-taloned fellow on that lovely black-and-white cover? Isn’t he fine? He could be a portrait of Mr Levanter-Sleet in one of his larger aspects.

When Jonathan Oliver asked me to contribute to The End of the Road,  I started thinking again about Morgane and Mr Levanter-Sleet. Maybe I could visit them again? Maybe we could find out how Morgane ended up in a position to send people demons, how she became a witch, how she “met” Mr Levanter-Sleet… It would have to have something to do with a road…

I started thinking about what I already knew about Morgane from MailerDaemon.

  • Morgane is “her real name but not her original name”
  • She seems surprisingly posh in voice and mannerisms, but is living in apparent poverty at the top of a dilapidated South London tower block.
  • When asked if she was always “like this”, she replies “I always saw things. But was I always a witch? No. That takes a lot of self-training.”
  • Grace believed she was about her own age (about 26 or so) but she appeared much younger.

So posh + poor = probably estranged from family? And posh family  + road = a road is being built through the grounds of a country house = road protests, like the battle over the Newbury Bypass in the late 90s? Always “saw things” = scary things everywhere for her to see. “self-training” =???

OK. The outlines were beginning to emerge of a Gothic story about an abused, neglected, poor-little-rich girl living in some creepy stately home, approaching puberty and tormented by her ability to “see things” – i.e demons.

And that was fine. But… I found myself feeling slightly bored by it. Blah blah privileged-but-neglected-magic-puberty-blah. I felt I’d read that story before. So I fretted, and, in all honesty, half-resigned myself to writing a story I wasn’t excited about, hoping that it would come alive in the telling.

But then I came back to something.

Morgane is her real name but not her original name.

Why is that?

And I thought of something – something that completely changed the way I looked  at the story in an unexpected and kind of daunting way — and I started saying “what I’m looking for is not that, it’s not that, but it’s something like that.” Which, when I do it, is always a sign that what I’m looking for  is exactly that. And as I realised that I began to worry about my ability to tell this new story right, to do it justice, but I also began to feel hugely excited.

 

Here’s a rather long excerpt (but it is a rather long story), in which we learn Morgane’s original name. It’s quite a big “spoiler” in a way, so consider whether you want to read or not, but it is something that happens in the first third — it doesn’t spoil the end. There’s still a lot of road in front of this girl, who, when we drop in on her here, has befriended a couple of protesters in the woods near her home and is going by the name “Christine”.

There are a lot of creatures in the woods that most people can’t see, but Christine has noticed a particularly menacing “thing” (demon) and starts trying to protect the group.

I should warn, this excerpt includes bigoted verbal abuse of a child.

The chainsaws have advanced. The vanguard of the A3012 is closer now, its progress laid out in white, raw stumps.

The wood-things are getting very anxious now. They trample and lash out in the undergrowth. Christine sees a man carried away by the police, blood pouring from his head. Amber huddles against Rachel’s side, pale-faced, while Rachel exclaims at the brutality.

“I don’t think it was the police,” says Christine. She wishes she hadn’t, afterwards. Amber looks at her oddly.

She doesn’t want to do it, with Amber looking at her like that, but the case is urgent: she begins drawing a pattern on the platform in chalk, a complex labyrinth of lines and pathways, like a fingerprint. Sand or flour or salt would be better, but even if she had any it would all blow away up here.

“Is that a spell?” asks Amber. Her tone sounds, if only very faintly, unnerved and censorious, presumably this is not the kind of spell Rachel does. Christine knows it’s not a very good spell, having made it up through trial and error. She has no idea if there are better ways out there. All she knows is that sometimes, drawing a certain kind of pattern and thinking about it in a certain kind of way, letting her attention run through it like a the silver ball in a maze puzzle, sometimes holds off bad things, when praying to St Jude or St Monica doesn’t.

(Praying to God or the Virgin never works at all.)

The pattern is not like a protective wall around them – how she wishes that were possible – it’s more like a camp fire to ward off midges, and in this case it doesn’t seem to be working. No matter how carefully she tries to pour her mind into the gullies and whorls, she remains aware that the thing up on the ridge is moving. It separates itself from the phone mast, organising itself into something crudely bipedal, and comes striding down the valley, condensing as it walks so that in the blackness she catches glimpses of its inner structure: bones, claws, teeth. Christine clenches her fists – the thing is heading for her, she knows. She hunches lower over the pattern, whittling her attention away from everything outside it; she senses rather than hears Amber whispering something to Rachel but does not look up –

“Oh, sweetie,” Rachel says. “Don’t your parents know where you are? It’s been lovely having you here, but you’d better go home.”

Christine draws her knees up under her chin and doesn’t take her eyes from her chalk pattern.

The thing is beside the tree now. It glowers down at her, curious. The chainsaws and loudspeakers blare below.

It’s still better than the house. “I want to help stop the road,” she says.

“It’s fantastic that you’re so passionate, but you know you can’t stay here overnight all by yourself.”

“I’m not all by myself.”

“Your parents must be worried sick. Where do you live?”

Christine shrugs again, gestures vaguely, coughs a monosyllable. She knows that pretending she doesn’t know the answer to questions she doesn’t like isn’t a very good strategy, but it’s all she has.

“You can come back tomorrow,” offers Amber, relenting.

“Yes! Give us a call tomorrow,” Rachel soothes. She takes out a mobile phone, and a little notepad and pencil from her utility belt. Christine looks up, slightly interested. (The thing is still staring but isn’t doing anything to hurt her). No one she knows has a mobile phone apart from George. His is more modern, a little bit smaller and it has a cover at the bottom you can flip open. He takes transparent pride in flipping it open.

“Need it for organising,” says Rachel.

Then a voice bulls its way through the mess of sounds. It’s hard to gauge whether it’s really as loud as it seems to Christine, but to her it’s already louder than the grind of the chainsaws. It’s shouting her real name.

She freezes, panicked,

George has grabbed one of the loudspeakers and her name blasts up at the tree as if flung from a flamethrower.

QUENTIN!” George bellows. “Quentin, get down from there at once.”

It’s physically painful. She feels the blush seeping across her skin like a spilled acid. She shrinks on herself, helplessly. Rachel and Amber are, inevitably, looking at her, baffled, reassessing her face, her flat chest, her jaw-length hair.

“Is he talking to you?” asks Amber, as Rachel says “What did he call you?”

“Quentin, am I going to have to come up there and boot you down?” George roars up at the tree, a trace of angry laughter in his voice now. She knows without looking there’s a little crowd now, of police, cutters, stewards and even some of the protesters. “I will if I have to.”

She can’t answer Amber and Rachel, she can hardly even breathe. She stares into the bright eyes of the Thing and thinks for an instant of hurling herself down from the treehouse, maybe the drop would be enough to kill her, maybe the dark thing would catch her.

Instead she reaches in silence with damp and shaking hands for the harness, slides into it with her eyes half-shut, and someone lowers her down into the grimy heat of the onlookers’ attention. Once on the ground, she lurches, her legs won’t stop shaking.

George grasps her shoulder. Her brother is only nineteen, but somehow the image of himself at forty: hearty and pink with immunity to doubt, his chestnut hair as solid as his firmly-packed flesh.

She sees his eyes go to the slide she’d been too dizzy with horror to remove:  “What the fuck is this?” he demands, yanking it out along with a clump of hair.

“… playing,” whispers the child.

“Playing at being a poof,” says George, resoundingly, flinging the slide into the undergrowth without noticing what it is. “Come on, for God’s sake, you’ve made enough of a spectacle of yourself.”

 

He doesn’t let go of her arm, even though it must be obvious she’s not going to run away, sinking to the ground is more of a risk. He reaches into his pocket with his free hand and pulls out his mobile.

“Hello, mother,” he says into it. “I’ve found him.”

 —

I want to thank  _oatc_  on Twitter for being patient with me, and Roz Kaveney (whose novels you should read) for encouraging me (“I think this must always have been in your subconscious about this character,” she told me), and kindly permitting me to adapt an incident from her early life.

 

I hope I’ll find a way to write about Morgane again.

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  1. [...] for Morgane and her daemon Levanter-Sleet. Sophia McDougall goes into the genesis of the story on her blog. Through Wylmere Woods is my absolute favourite story of the anthology, because as usual McDougall [...]

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