Thursday, May 5, 2011

Exorcising the Mists

An apt subtitle for Court Ellyn's novella Mists of Blackfen Bog might be "When Priests Go Bad" but that gives away too much of the story. Imaen, the protagonist and narrator, is a disillusioned priestess on a journey with her mentor, the Venerable Orn, to Fellwater, a hamlet in a remote corner of the realm.

For years Fellwater has suffered from hauntings, wraithlings that emerge from the mists as dusk settles on the bog. The spirits are lost and confused as they cannot for some mysterious reason enter Darashan's Valley, a paradise where all but the most evil go after death. The wraithlings have multiplied over the years and grown steadily more aggressive. Fearing that Darashan has cursed them, the villagers have resorted to human sacrifice--a victim chosen by lot each equinox--to assuage the god, but the curse remains. Braec, the village blacksmith whose daughter will soon be eligible for the lottery, has sent for the Darashani priests.

Imaen has lost her faith and has asked multiple times to be released from the priesthood, but Orn has refused. Imaen is not happy to be on this journey into a mosquito-infested backwater populated by suspicious yokels. As they travel along a dike in a cart pulled by a mule, Orn confides that freeing the bog from wraithlings is not their only task. The leaders of the order also want to know what happened to the Venerable Engrim and his acolytes. The last Darashani priest to serve in Blackfen Bog disappeared without a word years before.

Imaen's situation becomes only worse. Startled by a wraithling, the mule kicks Orn, who dies days later in Fellwater, leaving Imaen to face the wraithlings alone. From Braec, Imaen learns the horrific story of Engrim's descent into madness, his attempt to sacrifice the village children, and the fire at the temple that consumed Engrim and his acolytes. As Imaen suspected, the problem is not the curse of Darashan but that of Engrim and Imaen will have to journey beyond the grave to battle Engrim and save the children of Fellwater from more senseless sacrifices.

The marsh is a palpable presence in the story. Ellyn skilfully brings to life a world of water, dikes, and roundhouses on stilts. Far from merely providing atmosphere, the marsh limits Imaen as she cannot travel far in the bog or visit the ruins of the temple without a guide. Mists of Blackfen Bog is a compelling narrative, part fantasy and part ghost story, that deftly compares Imaen's physical journey to her spiritual journey. Through service and sacrifice, she rediscovers her faith and finds belonging in the most unlikely of places.

Court Ellyn kindly agreed to answer some questions about Mists of Blackfen Bog.

JC: Your story has echoes of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery." Did that story or any others influence Mists of Blackfen Bog?

CE: Well, this is rather embarrassing, because until now I was unacquainted with Ms. Jackson and “The Lottery.” Shame on me. In truth, my reading list is rather limited, but I try to branch out to authors I’m not familiar with when I have the time. Surely there are elements in Mists that I drew from other books and stories, but I can’t pinpoint anything in particular.

The fact is that writers draw inspiration from everywhere, filing random bits of information away until they come of use. Mists was born one afternoon when I was tying my tennis shoes in preparation for a workout. In the background, the History Channel was playing an episode on the bog bodies found throughout northern Europe. I’d been fascinated for years with the mystery surrounding the unfortunate individuals chosen by a desperate society to suffer those gruesome deaths. The little butterflies started flapping in my stomach and my brain started churning, and that evening I started brainstorming the plot and characters.

JC: What were your sources for the character names?

CE: At the time I started writing Mists, I had recently read a collection of stories by Ursula K. Le Guin, in which her characters are named after things found in nature. So I certainly drew from that when naming side characters like Rue, Jonquil, Fallow, Crane, and Rook. The practice was appropriate, I felt, because of this culture’s limited exposure to the outside world. They would naturally draw names from elements in their surroundings. I wanted Braec’s name to reflect the brokenness of his people. Because Imaen and Orn are outsiders, their names follow a different pattern. I have no idea where their names came from, except that they must’ve whispered them in my ear.

JC: I like the setting with the marsh, the dikes, and the round houses on stilts. What inspired the setting and how did the marsh enrich the story?

CE: Because of what initially inspired the story, it only seemed appropriate to set it in a Celtic/Scandinavian-style culture with thatched roundhouses, coracle-style boats, etc.

Originally, the story did not open with a description of the marsh. I jumped right into Imaen’s argument with Orn. But later, I wanted to show that the marsh is as much a character as Imaen or Braec or Jonquil; it is the element that has shaped the culture and mindset of the people living in it. So during revisions the setting got pushed to the forefront, literally, to emphasize its importance and the part it would play in the events to come. Obviously, I felt the setting important enough to give it a place in the title.

Now, could this story have taken place in a desert with mummified sacrifices instead? Probably. But there’s a darker ambiance with water. One cannot often see beneath the surface. But more importantly, in some cultures water was viewed as a doorway to the otherworld, the glassy surface a barrier between the human world and the fairy or spirit world. Throughout Mists there are several references to these dividing lines: twilight, the shoreline, characters standing on thresholds between rooms, and, of course, the equinox, that gateway between winter and spring. So the watery world in Mists takes on great significance for that reason.

JC: Growth through service and sacrifice looms large in Imaen's story. Please comment on her spiritual journey.

CE: Imaen’s spiritual journey is very much inspired by my own journey. If the best advice is to write what one knows, then I’m certainly qualified to write about spiritual turmoil. I was at war with God for years. And I’m not ashamed to admit that because that struggle finally led me into a deep relationship of trust and affection with Him, and a far deeper understanding of who He is and who I am to Him.

I think it’s necessary for everyone of any faith to go through a period of questioning; otherwise, one accepts what one is told without establishing that that faith is one’s own. In Mists, a tragedy has uprooted Imaen’s faith, which is a common story, one I think many readers will be able to identify with. Through a series of events she must settle the question of her faith because her answer determines the actions she is willing to take on behalf of these troubled people.

JC: Some Christians deride fantasy for promoting paganism. Please discuss your views on the role of religion in fantasy worlds.

CE: I love C.S. Lewis’s reference to Deep Magic in his Narnia stories. If there was ever a fantasy writer who was NOT promoting paganism, it was C.S. Lewis.

Religion is one of those fundamental human needs; whether you ascribe to a faith or deride all faiths, you are cleaving to something you believe in. So touching on religious issues in fantasy is (1) realistic when building a fantasy world that reflects, in any way, our own, and (2) resonates in the human reader, either positively or negatively. So the writer will succeed in producing some kind of subconscious or emotional reaction in their readers when religion (of whatever kind) comes into play.

I have discovered on my own writing journey that my faith cannot be suppressed. It eventually rises in some shape in my fiction, whether that is through fictional deities or spiritual struggles. Usually both. If the spiritual element is missing from a story I’m writing, I usually find myself asking, “Why am I bothering with this? Where is the deeper message?” Sometimes I can answer those questions and continue with the project. Other times I can’t answer them and scrap the story as empty blather.

Now, I feel it’s very important to add that even in my stories which feature pantheons of fictional deities, the last goal I’m aiming for is to promote a faith not my own. Nor is it my goal to preach my faith to anyone. The goal is to explore the human being in relationship with, or fighting against, a higher power. Every human being copes with this struggle at one time or another, whether they claim allegiance to a deity or claim no deity exists at all. In my fiction, this struggle just happens to take place in a world I made up myself.

JC: Imaen is a strong female character as are Hetwyn and Rue. However, Imaen's freedom is circumscribed by men. Orn will not allow her to leave the priesthood and she cannot travel the bogs without Braec as a guide. Please comment on the tensions between the genders in Mists of Blackfen Bog.

CE: Honestly, I hadn’t given much thought to gender issues in this particular story. I was more focused on a clash between cultures than a clash between genders. But I see your point. The fact that a female priestess served the bog-dwellers before Imaen comes upon the scene and the fact that another female serves them afterward, I think demonstrates that at least among Imaen’s own culture, gender is less an issue than among the bog-dwellers themselves. The society of the bog-dwellers is clearly patriarchal, but those strong female characters, like Rue and Hetwyn, show that it’s not oppressively so, by any means. Those women dominate their spheres of influence with plenty of spunk.

JC: Do you have plans for any other stories set in the Blackfen Bog world?

CE: The world of Tanerra is very broad with several vastly different eras to explore for material. So Mists is not the first story I’ve written that takes place there, nor will it be the last. Last July, my story “Fire Eater” was published in a special addition of Kaleidotrope. Like Mists the tale is also set in the kingdom of Rahn on the world of Tanerra. It involves a prison for non-human criminals and, you guessed it, a priestess who wishes to help one prisoner in particular find redemption. It does not go as she hopes.

My goal in the long term is to collect all the tales of Tanerra into one big, fat volume for readers to enjoy. Whether or not that happens—and when—remains to be seen.

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